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Thursday night, the national halogen light of college football will be beaming down on a spot very close to where the sport first drew breath. The undefeated Rutgers Scarlet Knights are slated to meet fellow undefeated Big East rival Louisville in Piscataway, N.J. -- just across the river from where Rutgers played the very first college football game in 1869.
It's often said that if somebody didn't do something first, somebody else would eventually have come along and broken the ice. Can we really be sure of that, though? Can we really take it for granted that many of the technological marvels and entertainment institutions we enjoy today would exist had somebody not made the first primitive stab at their creation? Sure, things evolve and are improved upon from the time of that initial foray, but can we conclude that the evolution and improvement would have been possible without the first intrepid pioneer who took a shot at making the thing a reality?
I don't think so.
Which is why college football owes Rutgers big time -- and why there is no time like the present to begin paying them back.
If it weren't for Rutgers, and its neighbor a wagon's ride to the south, Princeton, I put it to you that there would be no college football today; at least not as we know it. It might exist as an intramural sport, perhaps -- something played between representatives of the physics and philosophy departments. But the big-time thing that it has come to be? No way. The Brobdingnagian stadiums, the scholarships, the cheerleaders, the television contracts, Keith Jackson, Joe Paterno, Eddie Robinson, the Heisman, the Outland, Touchdown Jesus, Army vs. Navy -- none of it would exist.
And, because it was football that really put intercollegiate sports on the map, can we not also assume that the other college sports we know and love might be similarly lagging?
Yes, we know that the game Rutgers and Princeton played 137 years ago did not much resemble football as we've come to know it -- and that other schools have tried to claim that it was them that played the first "real" intercollegiate contest years later. That's not the point. You're either the first organism that crawls out of the water and starts living on land, or you're not -- even if you don't exactly resemble Secretariat or Mr. Universe at the moment of transition.
So, let us agree then that college football -- not to mention its overgrown stepchild, the National Football League -- owes its very fiber to these two New Jersey universities.
What is to be done about it? For their part, Princeton made a conscious effort years ago to remove itself from big-time football consideration. It, along with seven of the other eight Colonial Colleges (called so because they were awarding degrees before the American Revolution), operates in Division I-AA. The Tigers boast a 7-1 record this year, and have a shot at the Ivy League title. That's a nice season, but Princeton's being upstaged so far by the one Colonial College that does play Division I-A ball: Rutgers.
Many people are calling Thursday night's showdown the most important game in Rutgers football history -- at least since Day 1, anyway. It's true that the 1990s and the early part of the 21st century were not good times for the program. It's also true that the team has rarely pushed its way into the national spotlight since kicking the door open four years after the Civil War ended. Which isn't to say there haven't been highlights -- it's just that what few there have been came before ESPN started showing games on Thursday nights.
After getting the ball rolling (literally, since only kicking was allowed in the first game), Rutgers pretty much tanked the rest of the 19th century. It had brief bursts of competence in the 20th, like going 14-2-2 between 1923 and 1924, and 14-2-1 between 1938 and 1939. The 1946-48 squads were a combined 22-5, and the 1960 and 1961 teams were a combined 17-1, with '61 being the school's first undefeated season since it won its sole game in 1876. The mid-to-late '70s were boom years as well, as the Scarlet Knights were 45-11 from 1975 through 1979. This included their only other undefeated season in 1976 -- en route to an 11-0 record, Rutgers beat Louisville 34-0 three decades ago this week.
Other than some memorable individual games, though, that's pretty much it. And that's not a lot to show for a century-and-a-third's worth of trying, nor is it a fitting fate for a school that was present at the game's creation.
Which brings us back to what other schools can do to help repay Rutgers for opening the Pandora's box that is college football. I would suggest the Scarlet Knights deserve nothing less than a slot in the national championship game -- provided, of course, that they can hold up their end by beating Louisville and running the table in their remaining three games against Cincinnati, Syracuse and West Virginia. Given that they are currently No. 13 in the BCS rankings, an undefeated season, in and of itself, will probably not be enough to get them to Glendale, Ariz., on January 8th. What they need is for the remaining unranked opponents of the 12 teams ahead of them to act as though their very existences were owed to Rutgers -- which, as I've told you, is actually the case.
This is what needs to happen -- either all of this, or at least most of it:
Northwestern beats Ohio State; Indiana bests Michigan; South Florida and UConn dispatch Louisville; Florida State makes Florida pay for its recent hard times, with South Carolina and/or Western Carolina doing the same; Kansas State and Texas A&M put away the Longhorns; Georgia and Alabama make short work of Auburn; Oregon and, if it would like to chip in, UCLA wipe out USC; Arizona and Stanford muscle out Cal; Air Force and Army blitzkrieg Notre Dame; Cincinnati and Pitt humble West Virginia; Tennessee and Mississippi State handle Arkansas; and, finally, Alabama and Ole Miss run roughshod over LSU.
This is not a suggestion that anybody should lie down in order to fulfill Rutgers' destiny. On the contrary, it's asking 20 or so schools to rise above what will mostly be underdog berths and clear the decks so Rutgers can be in a position to fulfill its own destiny on January 8th.
Isn't that the least they can do?
Jim Baker is, not surprisingly, a graduate of Rutgers, where he learned the word "Brobdingnagian." He is an author at Baseball Prospectus and a frequent contributor to Page 2. You can e-mail Jim at firstname.lastname@example.org.