PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- With three weeks left in the season, Rutgers is in the driver’s seat in the Big East Conference.
The road is straight for first-year coach Kyle Flood and his program, one that has never won the league.
But if the Scarlet Knights (8-1, 4-0) win their final three games, they will capture the conference crown, a BCS bowl bid and complete a more than a decade-long revival that will see the birthplace of college football rise from a gridiron doormat to elite status.
The final steps won’t be easy, though. Rutgers’ schedule is back loaded with its three toughest opponents -- Cincinnati (7-2, 3-1), Pittsburgh (5-5, 1-4) and No. 20 Louisville (9-1, 4-1), whose surprising 45-26 loss last week to Syracuse (5-5, 4-2) left the Scarlet Knights alone in first place.
"It’s something that is always on our minds. Last year, we were one victory away from a Big East title, so we’re not overwhelmed," cornerback Logan Ryan said. "We’ve been there before with the pressure and we came up short. I think one thing we learned is that you have to come out to play every week.
"Keep chopping and you’ll end up where you want to be."
It starts this weekend in Cincinnati, a place that has never been very hospitable to the Scarlet Knights. They are 1-6-1 all-time there, with their only win coming in 1987.
Ironically, the last time Rutgers started 4-0 in the league was 2006. The fourth win was a nationally televised upset of then-No. 3 Louisville. The following week, the Scarlet Knights went to Nippert Stadium and were embarrassed by the Bearcats, 30-11. The title slipped away two weeks later when West Virginia beat the Ray Rice-led team in three overtimes.
While Pittsburgh isn’t having the best of seasons, the Panthers recently took No. 3 Notre Dame to three overtimes before falling. And of course, it all could come down to the final weekend and Louisville, which has a bye this week.
Flood -- given the job after Greg Schiano left in January for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the NFL -- isn’t worried about his team losing focus staring at the big picture.
"I think when you are playing an opponent like we are this week, and again, I’ll say it one more time -- a team that has been able to call themselves the Big East champions three of the last four years -- they have your attention right away," Flood said of Cincinnati, a program that went to BCS bowls in 2008 and 2009. "There is nothing else on our mind this week other than trying to be 1-0 this week and executing our game plan against whatever game plan they show up with."
There are a couple of other teams thinking the same way. Cincinnati and Louisville both have a chance at the title if Rutgers stumbles down the stretch, with Louisville having the inside track, having beaten the Bearcats.
Syracuse has an outside chance at the title, but it would have to finish tied for first with Louisville. For that to happen Rutgers would have to lose its final three games, Cincinnati would have to lose its last two after beating the Scarlet Knights this weekend, and Louisville would have to lose to Connecticut next weekend and beat Rutgers.
Louisville coach Charlie Strong isn’t going to worry about what-ifs. He will sit back this week and watch Rutgers, knowing that the Cardinals will go the rest of the season without their leading rusher, Senorise Perry, because of a knee injury.
"I told them, ‘Guys, I know this. We go to Syracuse and we got our butt kicked in. Still though, you have to beat Rutgers to go win it.’ So, your goal is still there," Strong said. "Whatever is in front of us is still there. It’s all about taking care of Connecticut. Let’s not worry about Rutgers."
For those who haven’t seen them, the Scarlet Knights are reminiscent of the Virginia Tech Big East teams of the late 1990s. They are a fast, aggressive defense that is outstanding against the run and very opportunistic in getting their hands on opponent miscues.
Rutgers ranks in the top 25 nationally in scoring defense (fifth, 13.4 points per game), total defense (14th, 309.4 yards, pass efficiency defense (17th, 109.9 yards), rushing defense (17th, 110.0 yards) and pass defense (25th, 199.4 yards).
The special teams are among the best in the country, and have been for years. They have blocked a nation-best eight kicks this year -- including two field goal attempts by Army last weekend-- and 31 kicks since 2009, which also is best in the country.
The offense is the question mark despite the presence of running back Jawan Jamison (105.9 yards per game) and receiver Brandon Coleman, who has a league-high eight touchdown catches.
Sophomore quarterback Gary Nova has thrown 18 touchdowns but also has tossed eight of his 10 interceptions over the past three games, including a few that were just bad decisions. Against Army, it seemed that the offensive game plan was overly conservative to avoid mistakes and allow the defense to carry the team.
All that said, the critics this year have at least a little to go on. Rutgers, after all, has played just one FBS team with a record over .500 -- Kent State of the Mid-American Conference -- and lost to the Golden Flashes, 35-23, on homecoming in Piscataway. Last week, Rutgers was tied 7-7 with Army (2-8) in the fourth quarter.
But Nova isn’t worried. He’s got a job to do, and skeptics aside, he knows Flood is in his corner as the Scarlet Knights seek out history.
"He told me that no matter what happens this year, I’m going to be his guy and I’m going to be his guy for the next three years," Nova said. "Having that out of your mind in the game is just huge and takes a lot of weight off my shoulders."
If there is an intangible for Rutgers down the stretch, it might be Flood. He is a player’s coach that has carried on the culture and brand of Rutgers Football that Schiano cultivated.