Real-deal Rutgers means must-win for USF

Rutgers is for real.

It’s a difficult concept to fathom, as Rutgers hasn’t been taken seriously in three decades. On Friday night, the Scarlet Knights are out to prove that their No. 23 Associated Press ranking isn’t a fluke.

The Bulls are out to gain some national recognition. And a win over a ranked opponent on ESPN2 is a good way to achieve it.

“We don’t get a lot of respect around the nation,” left guard Thed Watson said. “With (Rutgers) being ranked No. 23, I think a win will open a lot of people’s eyes and they will see that we’re for real.”

I’m still having trouble considering a victory over Rutgers a huge accomplishment. Growing up in New Jersey, where Scarlet Knights’ fans were embarrassed to admit their loyalty, I have difficulty believing in Rutgers.

Prior to last season, the only bowl appearance the Scarlet Knights made was at the Garden State Bowl in 1976 – a game sponsored by the state in which they play.

Last season’s Insight Bowl appearance showcased the Scarlet Knights’ offense despite a 45-40 loss to Arizona State and built momentum coming into the 2006 season.

Unlike USF, Rutgers has been able to carry the success from last season into dominant performances this year.

The Scarlet Knights have performed as expected against non-conference opponents, winning four games by a combined score of 134-30, while USF has staged comeback victories against three schools that aren’t in BCS conferences.

Coach Greg Schiano has transformed Rutgers from a laughingstock into a possible national contender in only two seasons.

For the first time in 30 years, Rutgers is among the Top 25 in the nation. Fans in New Jersey actually believe in the Scarlet Knights, with good reason.

Sophomore running back Ray Rice is a Heisman Trophy candidate – he has rushed for 604 yards and nine touchdowns in only four games this season.

Rutgers has earned its ranking though a strong defensive effort. It ranks fourth in total defense, allowing only 205 yards per game.

The only knock against Rutgers is that it hasn’t played any notable teams. The four wins have come against North Carolina, Ohio, Illinois and Howard. Those teams have a combined record of 4-11 this season.

The Bulls are looking for respect, and they have to take it. For USF to gain prominence this season, a victory over Rutgers is a must.

The Bulls burst onto the national scene by upsetting No. 9 Louisville during their Big East opener last season. A win over Rutgers will carry the same weight and give the team a much-needed confidence boost.

Entering this season, USF was out to prove its invitation to the Meineke Car Care Bowl was no fluke, but the Bulls have done little do dispel those thoughts.

During all three wins this season, the Bulls were forced to stage fourth-quarter comebacks. Last week against Kansas, USF was unable to do anything consistently and dropped a close 13-7 game.

Even coach Jim Leavitt realizes the importance of Friday’s game, and his team looks to rebound while entering its “other season.”

“You really have two seasons: You have the conference games and the other games,” Leavitt said. “(Rutgers) is a pretty good football team – undefeated, nationally ranked and a couple of people up for the Heisman.”

Being the lone college football game Friday, both teams are receiving some much-needed national exposure. If the Bulls win, it will enhance their chances of making a return to a bowl game. After Rutgers, USF faces a tough conference schedule that includes Pittsburgh and Connecticut. The Bulls close out their season with road games at Louisville and West Virginia.

If they win Friday, the Bulls will only be two victories away from becoming bowl eligible. A win over Rutgers could mean the difference between the Gator Bowl and the Birmingham Bowl.