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Small teams buck college hierarchy

Teams like Rutgers University's Scarlet Knights have unexpectedly joined the ranks of football powerhouses.

By Erik SpanbergCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / October 20, 2006



Take a glance at college football's top 25 ranked teams and the usual suspects appear: Ohio State, Texas, Michigan, USC, several members of the powerful Southeastern Conference, and so on. Except, wait a minute – can this be right? – here are Rutgers and Wake Forest.

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That's no typo. Tucked in among the powerhouses are two schools much better known for academics – and even other sports (Wake Forest contends in Tobacco Road's basketball wars with Duke and North Carolina) – but certainly not football.

As Rutgers and Wake Forest try to prove their staying power the rest of this season, it's easy to see why few nontraditional football powers are able to crack the upper echelon on a consistent basis. The most obvious hurdle: tradition.

Football requires wave after wave of stellar recruiting classes to be competitive – and most high school stars prefer to sign with established programs rather than risk years of losing with a team that may or may not be on the verge of taking that next step.

"As opposed to basketball, with football you really have to build a team of 30 to 40 players," says Gary Danielson, an analyst at CBS Sports. "It has to be built with experience in a senior class down to the freshmen.

"Because in football," Mr. Danielson continues, "it usually is the weakest part of your team that is the determining part of your team. In basketball, the strongest part of your team becomes the determining factor – you just throw it to your best guy."

While college basketball fans can point to schools such as Gonzaga and George Mason as examples of surprise teams that have enjoyed magical late-season runs, few football Cinderellas exist.

At the moment, Rutgers and Wake Forest are the closest things. The Scarlet Knights, ranked 19th in this week's AP poll, boast a Heisman- worthy running back (Ray Rice) and have jumped out to a surprising 6-0 start. Saturday, Rutgers plays on national TV in a matchup with Big East rival Pittsburgh (5:45 p.m., ESPN2).

Skeptics persist, though, pointing to late-season games with Top 10-ranked opponents Louisville and West Virginia. If Rutgers wins either of those contests, its success will be much more legitimate in the eyes of college football experts.

Analysts note that even a second straight winning season and bowl appearance for the Scarlet Knights would not be enough to herald a new era. "You have to do it eight, 10 years to move into that next group," Danielson says.

And, for many smaller or nontraditional football programs, success itself can be a detriment. Rutgers may soon become Exhibit A, as sixth-year head coach Greg Schiano becomes a hot prospect. His name has already been bandied about for the plum coaching job likely to be vacated at the University of Miami later this year.

If Schiano bolts for Miami, it would be an irony of sorts. Miami is one of the few schools able to catapult a traditionally listless football program into a consistent national contender.

Led by Howard Schnellenberger, who took over in 1979, a few years after the school nearly dropped football as a sport, Miami won a national title in 1983. In all, the Hurricanes have captured five national championships during the past 25 years, more than any other school. Schnellenberger's rebuilding job, as well as Bill Snyder's at once-moribund Kansas State, ranks among the most surprising in recent college football history.

Major power may have cyclical swings – witness the fortunes of Texas, Nebraska, USC, and Ohio State in recent years – but those changes are far less earth-shattering than the rarely seen rise from the ashes.

Louisville, which has become a more consistent contender of late, may qualify several years down the road, but not yet.

For Wake Forest, off to its best start since 1979 and ranked for the first time in three years, prospects for a strong finish this season have improved as the traditional powers of the Atlantic Coast Conference flounder. Looking ahead, remaining games against Virginia Tech and Florida State are no longer automatic losses for the Demon Deacons, who resume play Oct. 28 against North Carolina.

Even if Rutgers and Wake Forest can sustain their strong starts through the rest of the season and reach mid-level bowl games, it will take many similar years to make a dent in the traditional powers.

"It's just tough to continue to match Ohio State, Michigan, Alabama, Texas – they are the Holy Grail of college football," Danielson says. "There are about 15 places you can mess up, die, go on probation, and they'll still come back and be great because of their tradition. If you do that to Rutgers, they'll never come back."

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