USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.
The Big Ten welcome mat has been laid out for Rutgers: Penn State, Michigan, Ohio State, Nebraska and Wisconsin to start – my goodness – with a close of Indiana, Michigan State and fellow newcomer Maryland. Quite a task for a program without a victory against a team with an end-of-year winning record since Nov. 17, 2012.
If better here than there – the Big Ten against the American Athletic Conference – Rutgers appears headed for the conference-realignment hiccup, a painful but not fatal disease that can be cured with coaching and recruiting.
COUNTDOWN: Complete list (so far)
Leave it to the Scarlet Knights to be on queasy footing in both areas. The jury's still out on the former: Rutgers has dipped since Kyle Flood's promotion, losing steam as a number of relative newcomers made the most of a wide-open American – like UCF, for instance, which did in one year what Rutgers never could.
Promoting Flood saved one recruiting class, that star-studded group signed in 2012, but the Scarlet Knights' efforts in the two years since have lagged behind the pack. February's group ranked 57th nationally, per Rivals.com; that would have stood 10th in the Big Ten. Here's the scariest part: Rutgers signed none of the top 10 and only two of the 20 prospects in New Jersey while nine of the top 20 chose other Big Ten programs – with three going to Penn State and newfound bête noire James Franklin.
Offensively, Rutgers' identity circles around rampant turnovers, declining production along the front five and the unfathomable inability to secure effective quarterback play. A program built on defense has hit a snag: Rutgers allowed 387 points last fall, a program high since 2002.
Things have changed since he-who-shall-not-be-named left town, in some ways for the better – this Big Ten thing is simply enormous for the program and athletic department – but in many ways for the worse. There's a reason this ex-coach's name lurks in the shadows, around every corner, like a boogeyman who scares but also, you know, win games. Say it quietly: Greg Schiano.
LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:
I'm picking Rutgers to win seven games during the regular season and finish fourth in the American, behind – in alphabetical order, obviously – Cincinnati, Louisville and UCF. Getting the Cardinals and UCF on the road on short breaks essentially eliminates the Scarlet Knights from BCS contention, in my opinion. But I will say there's obvious potential for a nine-win season, especially if the defense performs above my expectations and the offense finds some security behind Nova, Huggins, Coleman and the offensive front. A bigger test awaits in 2014.
In a nutshell: If this makes any sense – and I don't think it does – Rutgers was the most deserving six-win team in six-win history. Of the Scarlet Knights' seven defeats, six came against better teams, pure and simple: Fresno State, Louisville, Houston, Cincinnati, UCF and Notre Dame. The seventh, against Connecticut, doesn't even deserve our time and energy. Of the team's six wins, exactly zero came against opponents with a pulse. Hence the designation: Rutgers was deserving of six wins, but no more. Offensively, it was a familiar story for those familiar with the program's recent successes and failures: Rutgers sputtered at times on the ground, succeed at others; the passing game accounted for 22 interceptions, tied for third-most in the Football Bowl Subdivision. But the most striking example of mediocrity came defensively, where the Scarlet Knights tumbled from fourth nationally in scoring defense in 2012 to 81st. Add a turnover-heavy offense to a porous defense, pour in another strong start, toss with conference wins against weak conference foes and you have six wins, basically.
High point: Wins against Arkansas and SMU lifted Rutgers to 4-1 heading into a key matchup with Louisville on Oct. 10.
Low point: Connecticut. The Scarlet Knights committed three turnovers to the Huskies' none.
Tidbit: Rutgers has played a total of 50 games at 14 different Major League Baseball stadiums, if we count both old and new Yankee Stadium – which we should, I think, even if both venues share the same nauseating strip of concrete. The friendliest made-for-baseball location was Boston's old Nickerson Stadium, once the home of the Boston Braves, where the Scarlet Knights went 3-0 against Boston University.
Tidbit (penalties edition): Well, this doesn't make any sense. Under Flood, the Scarlet Knights are 2-8 when committing fewer than seven penalties – including 1-5 a year ago – and 13-3 when committing seven or more penalties.
Tidbit (coaching edition): Maryland's subtle growth under Randy Edsall quelled the furor over Ralph Friedgen's untimely dismissal following the 2010 season, though it did little to quiet Friedgen's sterling reputation among his coaching peers. Well, he's back: Flood hired Friedgen in an effort to resuscitate the Scarlet Knights' moribund offense, handing the keys to this attack to one of the more underrated offensive technicians of his generation. The finale against Maryland should be intriguing, if little else. Another two new faces join the mix on offense: Mitch Browning takes over the offensive line, marking his 10th FBS stop, while former Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive assistant Ben McDaniels will coach the wide receivers. Elsewhere, Bob Fraser was hired to coach the linebackers and coordinate special teams, taking over the latter from Joe Rossi, who was promoted from interim defensive coordinator to the full-time position.
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:
Worst Knights of the Round Table
3. Elyan the White
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Offense: If only by virtue of no other viable contenders for the role, senior Gary Nova will enter his senior season as Rutgers' starting quarterback. Two numbers tell the story: 39 and 23.54 – the first Nova's career interceptions, the second his career ratio of attempts to interceptions. What's frustrating about Nova isn't merely the constant bouts with turnovers; he's not the first quarterback to struggle protecting the football, and many have eventually turned the corner as upperclassmen. What's maddening: Nova tempers the pull-your-hair-out Saturdays with afternoons like last October's 283-yard, four-touchdown performance against SMU, or his gutsy performance two weeks earlier against Arkansas – and then comes out against Louisville and throws four interceptions, essentially gift-wrapping Teddy Bridgewater and the Cardinals an ugly conference win. It wasn't the first time.
It's always off, in other words, and the Scarlet Knights have been wholly unable to add a true second option into the mix despite Nova's struggles. On this year's two-deep, Nova is followed by junior Mike Bimonte and redshirt freshman Chris Laviano, who went a combined 5-of-20 for 55 yards during the spring game. Sink, swim or float, Nova's the guy. The good news is on the sidelines, where Friedgen, as good a quarterbacks coach as we've seen in the last 15 years, takes over the ultimate reclamation project. He doesn't need to reinvent the wheel: Nova has the arm to make every throw in Rutgers' book. Friedgen's work with Nova will come between the ears, helping the senior better read coverage schemes, digest blitz packages and make proper reads downfield. Easier said than done. How Rutgers has failed so miserably in recruiting and developing quarterback prospects is a total mystery.
One of the positives to stem from spring ball was the play of Desmon Peoples, a little-used sophomore who made the most of injuries to the Scarlet Knights' top two running backs to potentially carve out a package-specific role within Friedgen's offense. In this case, Peoples could work with senior Savon Huggins (286 yards) as Rutgers' third-down option. But despite being limited during the spring, the top two won't be unseated: Paul James (881 yards, 5.65 yards per carry) and Justin Goodwin (521) give Rutgers' offense a steady initial burst in the running game and solid production in the second half, from James in particular. Peoples might again be squeezed out of his share of touches, but that speaks more to Rutgers' depth at the position than the sophomore's ability to produce if given the opportunity.
All five starters return up front, meaning Rutgers and Browning can spend the offseason adding much-needed depth throughout the second level. In terms of depth, Rutgers really likes senior Bryan Leoni, who can step in all across the line, but the Scarlet Knights need to develop confidence in sophomores J.J. Denman, Brandon Arcidiacono and Ryan Brodie. The benefit is simple: Rutgers returns 99 career starts but can't afford to lose a single returning starter – for an extended period, at least – until at least two of the sophomores prove themselves capable of shouldering the load with the first-team offense. In a perfect world, they wouldn't be needed. The returning starters: Keith Lumpkin at left tackle, Kaleb Johnson at left guard, Betim Bujari at center, Chris Muller at right guard and Taj Alexander at right tackle. Johnson, Bujari and Alexander are seniors; Muller is the only sophomore. This front five will be the most improved unit on this offense.
Defense: Rossi takes over a defense scrambling for answers in the secondary. How unpredictably poor was the Scarlet Knights' pass defense a season ago? Consider this: Rutgers allowed 31 touchdowns, 117th-most in the FBS, after allowing just 40 during the previous three seasons combined. When it comes to this year's two-deep, look for a number of incoming freshmen to jostle for significant snaps by the heart of Big Ten play; one freshman, Kamren Lott, enrolled early and has already carved out a role at cornerback. In terms of starters, the only set piece is senior Lorenzo Waters (62 tackles), who will continue to hold down the fort at strong safety.
So the competition will be fierce come August. Jonathan Aiken (24 tackles), he of the three career starts, is the early favorite to start alongside Waters at free safety. That may change should Rutgers choose to transition Delon Stephenson back from cornerback, where he spent most of the spring. Stephenson will only return to safety if Rutgers feels comfortable with senior Gareef Glashen (41 tackles) and sophomores Ian Thomas – now back with the program – Nadir Barnwell and Anthony Cioffi, and the staff shouldn't feel cozy with the idea of this same group logging starter's snaps after such a down 2013 season. At the same time, let's remember: Gashen and the sophomores are a year older, returning Thomas is a major addition and the freshmen could give a boost to a group lacking in confidence. Improvement is sorely needed.
This front has proven it can stop the run, even if opponents found it too easy to churn out yardage through the air to really test Rutgers' in-the-box fortitude. Next, this front four must ramp up its production in the pass rush. There's certainly the potential for great things: Darius Hamilton (48 tackles, 11.5 for loss) is close to reaching his high-profile expectations, making him a future star to watch in the Big Ten; Djwany Mera (34 tackles, 5.5 for loss) returns to tackle after starting all 13 games last fall; Kenneth Kirksey has recovered from a triceps injury to regain the starting spot at nose tackle; and sophomore Quanzell Lambert has the athletic gifts to be a menace as a rush end, though he may need to be spelled against run-heavy personnel packages. With this quartet in place – I'm assuming Lambert starts despite a recent shoulder injury – Rutgers need only land productive reserve play from Julian Pinnix-Odrick, David Milewski and Kemoko Turay.
This group allowed only 1,310 rushing yards on 3.1 yards per carry last fall, succeeding against traditional and unorthodox running games alike. Again, the key is a stronger pass rush; the Scarlet Knights did land 32.0 sacks last year, tied for 31st in the FBS, but the team's leading sacker, Marcus Thompson, must be replaced. Helping matters is a solid second level that returns two full-time starters and the top reserve, with the latter set for a promotion into the starting lineup. One slight change: Steve Longa (123 tackles) and Kevin Snyder (96 tackles, 7.5 for loss) will swap spots, with Longa moving to the weak side and Snyder to the middle. To Rossi, this move will put Longa into space, where Rutgers can best utilize his athleticism – a good move altogether, but particularly noteworthy given the potential impact Longa can have as a fifth rusher. The final spot, on the strong side, will go to junior Quentin Gause (53 tackles, 8.5 for loss), who seems to have a knack for being near the football.
So what's the story on defense? To me, the Scarlet Knights are going to be successful more often than not against pro-style, traditional offenses – like, say, Penn State and Michigan. These offenses won't necessarily strain the back end, forcing an unproven and largely ineffective secondary from roaming in space and making crucial pre-snap reads and recognitions; they're more linear, basically, and a straightforward attack plays to Rutgers' strengths inside the hashes. I worry about how Rutgers might fare against Ohio State and Indiana, for example, and even Nebraska, which blends a physical style with basic spread properties. I'd say these offenses are more diagonal than straightforward; like an alligator, Rutgers' defense is dangerous when moving forward at full speed but can be shaken by zigzagging movements.
Special teams: Rutgers' special teams will take a step back without punter Nick Marsh even if Joe Roth was a bright spot during the spring. The Scarlet Knights could tread water if junior kicker Kyle Fedrico improves, but his inconsistencies have stymied Rutgers' production on the plus side of the field. There is some good news: Janarion Grant is already a weapon in the return game and still getting better, so he's in line for all-conference contention.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH:
Wide receiver: The biggest void is on the outside, where Rutgers simply doesn't have the size, length or athleticism to regain Brandon Coleman's production in the passing game. Sophomore Carlton Agudosi held the starting job by spring's end, though a second sophomore, Andre Patton, could challenge Agudosi during fall camp – though it should be said that both, if of the right body type, bring only eight career receptions into 2014. Of equal concern, perhaps, are injuries suffered by Rutgers' top two returning options: Leonte Carroo (28 receptions for 478 yards) is battling back from last year's concussion, though he'll be ready to go come August, while Ruhann Peele (28 for 281), the projected starter in the slot, suffered a foot injury in April. When at full health, Rutgers' rotation will feature Carroo, Peele, Agudosi – the top three – Patton, converted safety Tejay Johnson and Grant, the latter still developing the consistency needed to excel in the passing game. It's not a very good group. The saving grace is junior tight end Tyler Kroft (43 for 573), an immediate contender for all-conference accolades.
GAME(S) TO WATCH:
Penn State: The Scarlet Knights' Big Ten debut is interesting enough. Add in James Franklin, however, and you have must-see football in September. "I consider New Jersey in-state," said Franklin in March of the Nittany Lions' recruiting strategy, adding of Rutgers' football program, "they might as well shut them down because they don't have a chance." You'd say Franklin was biting off more than he could chew, but then you look at Penn State's success in New Jersey back in February … and then see that PSU has landed verbal commitments from three of the state's top five for the class of 2015, according to Rivals.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:
In a nutshell: Let's get this part out of the way: There's really no reason why Rutgers can't be a successful program in the Big Ten, reaching bowl eligibility without fail thanks to solid coaching, a close-the-borders recruiting approach and an improved offensive mindset. Of course, whether the Scarlet Knights can achieve each of those markers remains to be seen – both this year, where the outlook isn't good, and in the long run, where changes may be needed in order to secure the Scarlet Knights' hopes for a productive future. In terms of a positive, the steps taken in securing Friedgen for the highest assistant-coach salary in school history is a good sign; it shows that Flood is being proactive, for one, while also indicating the in-house support needed to run with the rest of the Big Ten. But that's just a start.
In the big picture, Rutgers simply cannot afford to cede ground to Penn State and other Big Ten programs when it comes to recruiting within New Jersey. To think of it in one way, other programs will be able to come into the state and make noise, if Rutgers isn't careful; the same can't be said in the other direction, however, as Rutgers needs to develop cachet in states like Ohio by making on-field noise in its new conference. Why is this important? Well, recruiting's the lifeblood of every program. But at Rutgers in particular, you're seeing a strong crop of second-year players sandwiched by a number of ineffective recruiting classes, not to mention inadequate development. The roster needs an influx of talent, and at the skill positions in particular.
As for 2014, I can't envision a scenario where the Scarlet Knights enter new ground and land outside the bottom third of the Big Ten. There's the schedule, for one: Rutgers' slate is beastly, pure and simple, with 10 FBS teams coming off bowl-eligible seasons and eight conference foes dreaming of seven or more wins during the regular season. It's a repeated idea, but again: Rutgers is trading in Temple and South Florida – the two weakest American opponents last fall – for Maryland and Indiana. This will task both sides of the ball.
And both sides of the ball have issues. Despite Friedgen's arrival, Rutgers is still worrisome at quarterback and wide receiver and short on depth up front. Defensively, the Scarlet Knights must solve their issues in the secondary and with the pass rush or risk being revealed as one-dimensional – and if not the SEC, the Big Ten has its fair share of sharks sniffing for blood in the water. On special teams, the kicking game is a major issue. As of today, Rutgers enters its new conference as a pretender. It'll take one hell of an effort to succeed against the odds.
Dream season: Rutgers goes 8-4 overall and 4-4 in the Big Ten, beating Penn State, Nebraska, Indiana and Maryland.
Nightmare season: The Scarlet Knights go 2-10 as Big Ten neophytes, losing all eight games against conference competition.
Who's No. 97? According to this university's estimate, the 12-month cost of attendance for international students is the same as the average American's share of publicly held debt as of January 2013.
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