NCF Nation: Kevin Haslam
WHO TO WATCH: Rutgers wide receiver/occasional quarterback Mohamed Sanu. With Tim Brown either out or very limited in this game, Sanu becomes the team's No. 1 big-play weapon. He was very effective late in the season operating out of the Wildcat formation, and look for a lot more of that on Saturday night. He could also be quarterback Tom Savage's main option in the passing game. The true freshman had an outstanding regular season and needs to come up big in the postseason for Rutgers to win this game.
WHAT TO WATCH: It should be strength versus strength on the edge when Rutgers' offense lines up against the Central Florida defense. UCF defensive ends Bruce Miller -- who was the Conference USA defensive player of the year -- and Jarvis Geathers combined for 23 sacks and 30 tackles for loss this season. While the Scarlet Knights' offensive line didn't live up to expectations this season, they still have two excellent tackles in Anthony Davis and Kevin Haslam. It's most likely Davis' last game in a Rutgers uniform as the junior expected to declare for the NFL draft. Davis and Haslam need to hold off the pass rush and try to create some running lanes against the Knights, who ranked fourth in the FBS in rush defense this season.
WHY TO WATCH: Because it's the first night of bowl season, and haven't you missed football? Plus, Central Florida wants to impress the Big East as a potential future member, and this could be a good audition. This game could also serve as a springboard to next year for the Scarlet Knights.
PREDICTION: Neither team will find it easy to score, but Rutgers has more athletes across the board and will create field-position advantages with its defense and special teams. Scarlet Knights over regular Knights, 21-17.
All teams are not created equal. And not all positions on a given team are on a level playing field.
There are some position groups that are much stronger than others. Today, we take a look at the areas where some Big East teams are simply loaded:
• South Florida's defensive line: Probably the most impressive-looking group, physically speaking, that I saw all spring. The Bulls' D-line is full of tall, rangy, athletic specimens. There's George Selvie, of course, but don't forget about Terrell McClain and Aaron Harris. And when Jason Pierre-Paul and Ryne Giddins come in this summer, the defensive line is going to be even more loaded.
• Pittsburgh's defensive line: The Panthers defensive front is just as strong as South Florida's, but in a different way. Dave Wannstedt prefers undersized, hyper-athletic players up front, and he's got them in spades with Greg Romeus, Jabaal Sheard and Mick Williams, among others.
• Rutgers' offensive line: The Scarlet Knights return all five starters from their offensive front, the only team in the Big East to do so. But this is more than just a collection of veterans. There are real stars on this unit in left tackle Anthony Davis and Rimington Trophy candidate Ryan Blaszczyk at center. Throw in improving right tackle Kevin Haslam, and you've got one loaded line.
• Connecticut's linebackers: All three of the Huskies' starting linebackers -- Scott Lutrus, Lawrence Wilson and Greg Lloyd -- are back, as well as the top three backups. And one of UConn's top recruits, Mike Osiecki, also plays linebacker. This is one position that's in extremely good hands for Randy Edsall.
Others considered: Cincinnati's wide receivers, Connecticut's safeties, Louisville's wide receivers, Rutgers' linebackers, South Florida's wide receivers, Syracuse's running backs and West Virginia's defensive line.
If Rutgers can pull out a victory Saturday at South Florida, it will step closer to achieving a feat that's extremely rare, if not unprecedented, in recent football history.
The Scarlet Knights got off to an abysmal 1-5 start. Yet thanks to their three-game winning streak, they can even their record this week. And with Army and Louisville left at home, bowl eligibility is a real possibility.
Since 2003, which is as far back as my trusty Phil Steel yearbook takes me, no team from a BCS conference has ever started out 1-5 and rebounded to make a bowl. Among all FBS schools, only one other team has gone that route. The 2006 Rice Owls won six of their final seven regular-season games and earned a bid to the New Orleans Bowl against Troy, which itself rebounded from a 1-4 start. (And who among us will ever forget that 41-17 Troy victory in the 2006 New Orleans Bowl?)
Among major-conference teams, the closest parallels for Rutgers from the past five seasons would be the 2004 Oregon State Beavers, which climbed back from a 1-4 hole to beat Notre Dame in the Insight Bowl; the 2003 West Virginia Mountaineers, who went from 1-4 to the Gator Bowl; the 2006 Minnesota Golden Gophers, who were 2-5 before punching an Insight Bowl ticket.
Of course, the Scarlet Knights still have to win some games to complete their amazing turnaround. And that starts at South Florida. Offensive lineman Kevin Haslam told The Star-Ledger earlier this week that, " this is probably the biggest game I've played in because of the stakes."
The obvious place to look for a turning point for this team would be the Connecticut game, when Rutgers got a break when the Huskies missed three field goals, including a possible game-winner, in a 12-10 victory. But linebacker Kevin Malast said there was no real moment he can pinpoint when things began to turn.
"I think we just kept getting better as the season went along," he said.
Credit coach Greg Schiano for not getting caught up in the negativity and calls for sweeping change after the terrible start. Sometimes it's better to not look at the big picture. Schiano kept insisting that his team wasn't far off, and he stuck by starters like quarterback Mike Teel even as they struggled.
The one-game-at-a-time cliche became this team's motto out of necessity because there didn't seem to be much reason to look forward. Now that bigger goals are attainable, the players say they're sticking with what got them here.
"It's become an instinct for us to take it one game at a time," Malast said. "This teams knows what it has to do."
If it does what is possible the next three games, this team will have authored one of the great turnarounds in recent college football history.
Rutgers: Looking to spark his slumping offense, coach Greg Schiano made several changes to his offensive line last week at West Virginia. Only two starters, left tackleAnthony Davis and center Ryan Blaszczyk, remained at their original positions. Kevin Haslam moved from left guard to right tackle, Mike Gilmartin switched from right tackle to right guard and split snaps with true freshman Art Forst, and Kevin Haslam went from right tackle to left guard. Schiano was non-committal this week when asked if we would use that alignment again after the Scarlet Knights mustered only 72 yards rushing in Morgantown.
West Virginia: With senior Reed Williams shutting it down and planning for a medical redshirt, the Mountaineers have turned to sophomore Anthony Leonard at middle linebacker. Leonard made his first career start last week versus Rutgers and recorded a team-high nine tackles. He is the fourth different player to start at that position in five games for West Virginia. Meanwhile, a handful of Mountaineers are dealing with head injuries, including quarterback Pat White, center Mike Dent and defensive lineman Pat Liebig.
Louisville: The competition is on again for the Cardinals' backup quarterback spot. Matt Simms, son of former New York Giants quarterback Phil Simms, has returned from his four-game suspension and split reps this past week with Tyler Wolfe. Head coach Steve Kragthorpe said he would decide on a No. 2 signal-caller the day before Friday's game at Memphis. Although starter Hunter Cantwell has recovered well from his ankle injury against Connecticut, Louisville would like the peace of mind of having a reliable backup.
Connecticut: After Bruce Carter blocked three straight punts against UConn on Saturday, North Carolina coach Butch Davis said his team exploited the Huskies' new personal protector. That would be linebacker C.J. Marck, who filled in for injured tight end Steve Brouse. But Connecticut coach Randy Edsall said after watching the film that Marck wasn't to blame, and that it was another player who failed to execute his technique. He declined to identify which player was at fault. With Brouse out several weeks, Martin Bedard has moved into a starting role, and backup offensive lineman Dan Ryan has switched to No. 88 to play tight end in some packages.
Pittsburgh: One reason for the Panthers' resurgence this season is that they have avoided a rash of injuries that's plagued the program in recent years. Linebacker Adam Gunn (neck) is the only serious, season-ending injury that has struck the team through five games. Linebacker Shane Murray, who hurt his knee in preseason, hasn't played a lot of snaps this season but is nearing full strength. With a bye this week, Pitt should be close to full health as it heads into the final seven games.