STORRS, Conn. -- College football seems intent on giving us a season straight out of Bizarro World, some sort of perverse parody from another dimension that includes programs with little tradition or -- even worse -- reputations as "basketball schools." The perfect example of this strange scenario rests in the middle of this week's Bowl Championship Series standings.
Ladies and gentlemen, presenting the No. 13 team in the BCS ... the University of Connecticut.
That's right, UConn. Is that Jim Calhoun's team? No. Geno Auriemma's Huskies? Wrong again. Randy Edsall coaches this group that is 7-1 overall and 3-0 in conference play, the only undefeated team remaining in the Big East. On Saturday night, when Rutgers visits Rentschler Field in East Hartford, the Huskies will play their first football game as a nationally ranked team. After consecutive victories over Louisville and South Florida, UConn entered the Associated Press poll this week at No. 16.
Pretty heady stuff, at least for Huskies fans who normally view football as a frustrating diversion leading up to basketball season. But don't expect Edsall to get caught up in the moment. Edsall, 49, is a graduate of the Tom Coughlin School of Tunnel Vision. He routinely refers to victories as "investments" or "deposits" into the team bank account and then stresses the importance of putting last week's results in "the rear view mirror."
Beating South Florida -- a team that had been ranked No. 2 in the nation just two weeks earlier -- in his 100th game as UConn coach forced Edsall to soften his stance just a bit. He agreed it was the biggest victory in school history. When asked about the fans storming the field for the first time at Rentschler Field (the stadium opened in 2003 to accommodate UConn's move from Division I-AA), he acknowledged it was "pretty cool."
He even stopped to listen to the UConn marching band, still pounding out fight songs as Edsall conducted his postgame press conference. "We're just a bunch of ordinary people trying to do extraordinary deeds," Edsall said.
And it truly is extraordinary, considering UConn jumped to Division I-A as an independent in 2002. It took five years and 10 weeks to climb into the AP poll. Only Marshall (two years, four weeks) got there faster.
The Huskies, 4-8 last season, were picked to finish seventh in the Big East. Critics try to discredit UConn's record, pointing to victories over Temple and Louisville that included officiating errors that favored the Huskies, and a non-conference schedule that included Duke, Maine and Akron. But the fact remains the Huskies could be playing for the Big East championship if they take care of business before the season finale at No. 7 West Virginia on Nov. 24.
"I don't want to think about last year, but you can't forget about where you came from," said D.J. Hernandez, a junior wide receiver who started six games last season at quarterback. "You don't want to go back to something that wasn't working. We had that taste in our mouth and I never want to experience that again."
Hernandez approached Edsall during spring practice about moving to wide receiver. That essentially opened the door for junior college transfer Tyler Lorenzen to take control of the team as the starting quarterback. And that might have been the defining moment for this team.
"I think it sends a big message to your whole team," Edsall said of the decision by Hernandez. "It shows his unselfishness and how committed he is to the team. I think that's one of the biggest things about this group of young men. They're all very unselfish. And I think that's one of the reasons we're having some of the success we're having."
Hernandez is UConn's second-leading receiver, making big contributions to an offense sparked by sophomore running back Andre Dixon, who has four 100-yard games, including a 167-yard effort against South Florida. But it's the guiding hand of Lorenzen, who began his career at Iowa State, that has restored order to UConn's offense. For the first time since 2004, when Dan Orlovsky left for the NFL, the Huskies have stability at quarterback.
"That position is so vital to the success of your team," Edsall said. "We have a guy who is only a first-year player in the division we're in and fortunately he has come in and played extremely well."
UConn's defense ranks 10th in the nation and second in the Big East behind West Virginia and is anchored by senior tackle Dan Davis and senior linebacker Danny Lansanah. But the conference's defensive player of the week the past two weeks has been redshirt freshman Scott Lutrus. The strongside linebacker, who received his only I-A scholarship offer from UConn, has played well beyond his years. His four interceptions are tied for the most in the nation by a linebacker.
Edsall was the first candidate UConn interviewed in December 1998 when athletic director Lew Perkins, now the AD at Kansas (another basketball school now in the BCS Top 10), was looking for the right man to lead the Huskies into Division I-A.
"I remember telling Lew, 'We'll end up back here,' " UConn AD Jeff Hathaway said of that interview with Edsall in Atlanta. "Randy has an incredible ability to focus on the goal, to stay to the plan, and not look backwards."
Those are qualities this program needed during an important transition period. Edsall says his vision for UConn required tweaking from time to time, but he remains focused on bigger goals. That's why he was back in his office at 4:30 a.m. Sunday, reviewing film and preparing for Rutgers.
The biggest win in school history and a national ranking won't change his approach after all these years. "There were lots of naysayers who never thought a day like this would happen here at UConn and with this football program," Edsall said. "I'm sure there are people who are shocked.
"Ultimately what you want to do is win your conference championship. And if you do that, you get all the benefits that go along with winning a conference championship. The vision hasn't changed."