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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 53: Rutgers

Rutgers is a winner. Something strange has occurred on the banks of the old Raritan.

Howard, Florida International, Maryland, Texas Southern, Army, Connecticut, South Florida, Louisville and Central Florida. Nine wins, nothing to write home about. Has Rutgers achieved enough since 2005 where we can find fault with a nine-win finish? Absolutely. There’s nothing wrong with nine wins — the program won eight games from 1999-2002 — but two of those wins came against F.C.S. programs; one came against a two-win Maryland squad; one over a service academy mired in a 13-year losing string; and another over the worst team in the Big East. It’s time to hold Rutgers to a higher standard, one where nine wins is not automatically cause for a parade.

Conference
Big East

Location
New Brunswick, N.J.

Nickname
Scarlet Knights

Returning starters
12 (6 offense, 6 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 34

2009 record
(9-4, 3-4)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 48

2010 schedule

  • Sept. 2
    Norfolk St.
  • Sept. 11
    at F.I.U.
  • Sept. 25
    U.N.C.
  • Oct. 2
    Tulane
  • Oct. 8
    Connecticut
  • Oct. 16
    Army
  • Oct. 23
    at Pittsburgh
  • Nov. 3
    at U.S.F.
  • Nov. 13
    Syracuse
  • Nov. 20
    at Cincinnati
  • Nov. 26
    Louisville
  • Dec. 4
    at West Virginia

Last year’s prediction

Rutgers has some holes to fill, but I believe the Scarlet Knights remain strong enough to challenge for a final Top 25 ranking and the Big East championship. As if the talent wasn’t enough, the team’s schedule will provide little in the way of resistance. The offensive line is terrific, and could lead the way toward a much-improved running game, but how far will Rutgers go without a viable passing attack? The defense is stellar – extremely athletic in spots – and with a breakout performance or two from the secondary should be just as good as it was in 2008. Only a major slip-up would prevent the Scarlet Knights from winning at least eight games for the fourth consecutive season.

2009 recap

In a nutshell I’m not going to continue beating this dead horse: yes, Rutgers was a slight disappointment last fall despite the 9-4 finish. This team was capable of far of more than three wins in conference play; perhaps not a Big East championship — Cincinnati was dominant — but at least a second-place finish in the conference, with a far more impressive bowl berth then one against U.C.F. in mid-December. However, if we hold the Scarlet Knights to a different standard, nine wins — regardless of the schedule, I suppose — with a freshman quarterback under center certainly was impressive. How did Rutgers do it? Defense, defense, defense. Perhaps the finest defense in program history, in fact, one that ranked in the top 20 nationally in six meaningful statistical categories. In all, Rutgers held 11 opponents to 24 points or less, seven opponents to 15 or less and pitched a pair of shutouts.

High point A 28-24 win at Connecticut on Oct. 31. It stands as the most impressive of the team’s three Big East victories. The Scarlet Knights won on an improbable 81-yard touchdown throw with 22 seconds remaining; it was the first play of the drive following a Connecticut touchdown with 38 seconds left.

Low point A 47-15 loss to Cincinnati in the season opener. The game was as ugly as the score represents. I suppose, however, that the uglier loss came on Nov. 21, when the Scarlet Knights looked pitiful in losing by 18 points at Syracuse.

Tidbit Rice and Rutgers, the only two schools in the F.B.S. to begin with the letter R, have a combined career winning percentage of .476. Rutgers, which began play in 1869, has a career mark of 609-593-42. Rice is worse: 428-548-32. Does that make our 18th letter the least successful letter in the F.B.S.? Not quite, though it comes in second. The unluckiest letter in the country is K – as in Kansas, Kansas State, Kent State or Kentucky – which has combined to post a career winning percentage of .463. Kansas is 569-552-58 all-time, Kansas State 458-604-41, Kent State 306-491-28 and Kentucky 567-558-44. Who else gives you this kind of meaningless information?

Tidbit (winning edition) While the first four Rutgers coaches of the modern era — again, since 1936 — compiled winning records with the program, Schiano is the first coach since the underrated Frank Burns (78-43-1 from 1973-83) to post a non-losing record with the Scarlet Knights. The trio of Dick Anderson (1984-89), Doug Graber (1990-95) and Terry Shea (1996-2000) posted records of 28-33-4, 29-36-1 and 12-43, respectively. Thanks to last year’s mark, Schiano brings a 55-55 record into his 10th season.

Tidbit (academics edition) Rutgers may come in at No. 53 on the Countdown, but the program came in at No. 1 in a far more important category: the Scarlet Knights landed the top spot among F.B.S. programs in the Academic Progress Rate, a grading tool used by the N.C.A.A. to gauge a program’s academic success. In fact, Rutgers set a new F.B.S. record for highest A.P.R., breaking the record set by Stanford two years ago.

Former players in the N.F.L.

26 LB Gary Brackett (Indianapolis), WR Kenny Britt (Tenenssee), TE Kevin Brock (Dallas), WR Tim Brown (New York Giants), FB Ryan D’Imperio (Minnesota), OT Anthony Davis (San Francisco), DT Eric Foster (Indianapolis), DT Gary Gibson (St. Louis), S Courtney Greene (Jacksonville), DE George Johnson (Tampa Bay), CB Nate Jones (Denver), RB Brian Leonard (Cincinnati), LB Kevin Malast (Chicago), CB Jason McCourty (Tennessee), CB Devin McCourty (New England), C Shaun O’Hara (New York Giants), S Joe Porter (Oakland), LB Brandon Renkart (Indianapolis), RB Ray Rice (Baltimore), CB Derrick Stephenson (Jacksonville), WR Tiquan Underwood (Jacksonville), LB Jamaal Westernman (New York Jets), OG Jeremy Zuttah (Tampa Bay).

Arbitrary top five list

Best defensive players in Bucknell history
1. DE Ed Burman.
2. CB Eugene Luccarelli.
3. DE Sean Conover.
4. LB John Dailey.
5. LB Russ Strohecker.

Coaching

Greg Schiano (Bucknell ‘88), 55-55 in nine seasons with the Scarlet Knights. So, so close to breaking past the .500 mark; one more year. If there is only one thing you need to know about what Schiano has done at Rutgers, it is this: prior to his arrival, the Scarlet Knights played in only one bowl game in 131 years of football. Though Schiano struggled early on in attempting to reverse the program’s losing culture, he has rebounded from a 3-20 mark from 2001-2 to post 36 wins over the last four seasons, including back-to-back eight-win seasons from 2007-8. Though Rutgers finished with a winning season – and bowl trip (Insight Bowl vs. Arizona State) – in 2005, the effort Schiano put into this rebuilding project paid off in a big way in 2006, when the Scarlet Knights were the feel-good story of the year in an 11-2, Top 25 season. That fall earned Schiano a well-deserved Big East and National Coach of the Year award. Prior to taking the Rutgers job, Schiano served as an apprentice both on the college (Miami from 1999-2000, Penn State 1990-95) and pro levels (Bears 1996-98). Part of the initial draw for Rutgers was his recruiting familiarity with the Miami region, an area that the Scarlet Knights have mined effectively under his watch. The job he has done with Rutgers is nothing short of incredible; after a slow start, Rutgers looks like a consistent bowl team with definite potential for Big East championships and B.C.S. appearances. Yes, fans must now deal with the yearly innuendo grouping Schiano’s name with countless F.B.S. job openings (Michigan and Miami are two recent examples), but that he is still at Rutgers bodes well for the program’s ability to retain him for the near future. Now, Schiano could be merely biding his time until Joe Paterno retires, but that’s another story.

Players to watch

There’s plenty of national love for Andrew Luck, the rising sophomore quarterback at Stanford, and rightfully so: he was superb a year ago. What about Tom Savage, you might ask? I have him right alongside Luck as the best young quarterback in the country; even more so than Luck, Savage is a program-defining quarterback, one capable of lifting Rutgers to even greater heights. There is truly no ceiling for the sophomore signal caller, whom I had projected in last year’s preview to redshirt his debut season. Not so: Savage’s redshirt lasted all of one half, as the then-true freshman was inserted into the season-opening loss to Cincinnati and never looked back. He finished the year with 2,211 yards passing while tossing 14 touchdowns against only seven picks, completing 52.3 percent of his passes along the way. Of course, look for his completion percentage to improve with time. Savage did have his freshman moments, of course — particularly in losses to Syracuse and West Virginia — and was occasionally erratic. He’ll improve with time, however, and I can’t stress this enough: when all is said and done, Savage will lead the Scarlet Knights to a B.C.S. bowl. He’s the future of the program.

Bruising running back Joe Martinek was very solid in his first season in the starting lineup, rushing for 967 yards and 9 scores. While not a big-play threat — though he did bust off a 61-yard tote against Maryland — Martinek is extremely effective between the tackles; he’s also useful late in games, wearing down defenses and controlling the clock down the stretch. Depth is somewhat of a concern, though I like what type of impact sophomore De’Antwan Williams could have as a change-of-pace back in conjunction with Martinek. More of an outside threat than the starter, Williams rushed for 235 yard and a score a season ago. Depth could be aided by a healthy season from senior Kordell Young, but it’s still unclear whether Young, recovering from yet another knee injury, will be ready to go come September.

Savage to Sanu. Score. Prepare to hear plenty of noise from the sophomore combination of Savage and receiver Mohamed Sanu, the latter the biggest surprise in the Big East — and perhaps the finest freshman pass-catcher in the country — a year ago. Sanu can do it all: a big-bodied, physical receiver, able to use his frame to out-body smaller defensive backs; and an equally talented rusher, particularly out of the Wildcat set. For the year, Sanu made 51 catches for 639 yards while rushing for 346 yards, combining for eight touchdowns. Sanu can do it all, yes. But he’ll need some help: Rutgers must replace 1,000-yard receiver Tim Brown, and return little proven talent outside of the rising sophomore. More second-year players are ready to break into the mix. One is Mark Harrison, little-used a season ago, who brings a similar build and physicality to Sanu. The same can be said of Tim Wright, another sophomore. There’s talent here, though it will take time for this young group to become accustomed to the college game.

The defense will have a slightly different look at linebacker, where Rutgers must replace a pair of talented starters. One thing is sure: Antonio Lowery will man the weak side. While overshadowed by departed starters Ryan D’Imperio and Damaso Munoz, Lowery put forth a solid junior campaign, making 55 tackles — the most of any returning defender — while starting eight games. Perhaps the transition to two new starters won’t be so severe, however: the Scarlet Knights have a rising star in the middle with sophomore Steve Beauharnais, who burst onto the scene with a terrific second half of 2010. Beauharnais was limited to mainly special teams action in the early season — the sophomore admitted he didn’t arrive on campus in optimum shape — but exploded once inserted into the rotation, ending the year with 36 stops (7 for loss) and 5 sacks. The strong side job will fall to junior Manny Abreu, who has yet to realize his massive potential.

It will be difficult to replace George Johnson’s experience, though Rutgers certainly does not lack for talent at end, where Johnson stood as a multiple-year starter. It will help to have a reserve like Jonathan Freeny ready to step into a starting role. Freeny was used as a pass-rushing specialist a year ago, a role in which the senior flourished: 33 tackles (12 for loss) and 9.5 sacks, the latter total leading the team. There’s no question that Freeny can again challenge the 10-sack mark; my only concern — and it’s not that large a concern — is how Freeny stands up against the run on a three-down basis. He’ll team with senior Ryan Silvestro, a former interior lineman who is very stout against the run. Again, it’s tough to replace Johnson; this pair, with Freeny rushing off the weak side and Silvestro standing tall against the run, will be exciting to watch.

While Scott Vallone returns at tackle after a standout freshman campaign (41 tackles, 9 for loss), Rutgers can go with either junior Eric LeGrand or senior Charlie Noonan over the nose. The latter pair split time at the spot a year ago, with LeGrand serving as a slightly more disruptive presence than Noonan. The senior entered the summer ahead of LeGrand on the depth chart, though LeGrand’s production, as noted, is hard to ignore: the junior made 33 stops (7.5 for loss) and a pair of sacks a year ago. If nothing else, look for Noonan and LeGrand to again share time at nose tackle. It’s never a bad thing to have depth, of course.

Even with its losses, I’m not worried about the Rutgers front seven. I’m more concerned with the secondary, where the Scarlet Knights lost first-team all-Big East cornerback Devin McCourty and multiple-year starting free safety Zaire Kitchen. Who will step up in McCourty’s stead? One starter does return at the position: junior David Rowe was steady last fall, though he was often picked on by opposing quarterbacks — McCourty was on the other side, remember. He’ll become the team’s shutdown cornerback in 2010; can he respond to the challenge? Senior Brandon Bing, who started opposite McCourty before losing his starting spot to Rowe, will move into the starting lineup on a full-time basis in his final season. It’s only natural to expect some decline in production from the Rutgers cornerbacks this fall.

Senior strong safety Joe Lefeged, entering his third season in the starting lineup, has increased his consistency without costing him much of the aggressiveness that makes him one of the Big East’s more intimidating defensive backs. This is a good thing: while the statistics might not show it — 44 tackles and a sack a year ago — there’s no discounting the importance of a hard-hitting strong safety in the middle of the field. Sophomore Khaseem Greene will get the first shot at replacing Kitchen at free safety, and all signs points towards Greene serving as another multiple-year starter at the position. Junior Patrick Kivlehan is a good safety valve behind Greene, should the sophomore struggle.

Position battles to watch

Offensive line Here’s the bad news up front: both tackles — including the sublimely talented Anthony Davis — must be replaced, as well as three-year starting center Ryan Blaszczyk. These will be tough starters to replace, particularly Davis; while Rutgers has become a premier destination for many of the region’s top prospects, it’s not often that this program lands a franchise left tackle. Here’s the good news: the line may be able to piece together a competent group if returning contributors like Art Forst and Desmond Stapleton continue to develop, though it will be difficult for Rutgers to match the impact of last year’s unit. Forst in particular is a player to watch. The junior, a 21-game starter over his first two years, is penciled in at right tackle — he was the right guard last fall — as the replacement for Kevin Haslam. He’s a heavy favorite for all-conference honors in 2010, whether he remains at strong side guard or moves out to tackle. Likewise, Stapleton is poised to step into the starting lineup at left tackle after serving behind Davis over the last two seasons. How will the rest of the line shake out? While he missed the second half of spring practice, senior Howard Barbieri is expected to move to center, replacing Blaszczyk. Desmond Wynn is expected to take over right guard. There will be a degree of competition at left guard: Caleb Ruch entered the summer atop the depth chart, but Antwan Lowery is not too far behind. One thing is for sure: this group, already dealing with lost starters, was hampered by injuries during the spring. It may take some time — through fall practice, if not into September — for the Rutgers offensive line to find its way.

Game(s) to watch

The late-September date with North Carolina is one of the better non-conference games in the F.B.S., particularly in the Atlantic region: the last time these two met, if I remember correctly, U.N.C. handled the Scarlet Knights. Keep an eye on how Rutgers fares in road tilts against three of the best teams the Big East has offer — Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and West Virginia.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell While not quite on the same level as the Pac-10, the Big East suffers from a bit of a logjam outside of its bottom two teams; in fact, unlike the Pac-10, the Big East does not have one, let alone two leading favorites for the conference crown. In that same vein, if Rutgers can overcome a few concerns — the offense as a whole must take a significant step forward in 2010 — the talent is in place for a B.C.S. bowl run. So that’s how good these Scarlet Knights can be. Of course, judging by the ranking, I don’t think that’s going to happen. Not to say Rutgers cannot win eight games; dates with Norfolk State, F.I.U., Tulane and Army will assure at least six wins, with Rutgers likely to land between seven and eight wins in 2010. However, road tilts against four of the best teams the Big East has to offer — the above quartet — will prevent this team from taking the conference. I’m willing to go a little further: I think the Scarlet Knights are one year away from competing for a conference title. Not to say Rutgers is going to struggle, not to say this will be a rebuilding year; with this schedule, roughly seven wins is in the cards, as noted. Yet other Big East programs have fewer concerns. Without question, the Scarlet Knights are built for the long-term. The offense remains young. The offensive line may need to round into form in 2010, but all the meaningful pieces will return in 2011. The defense is very talented — Schiano continues to stockpile talent on this side of the ball — but I’m somewhat worried about how the new contributors will fare in the defensive backfield. Rutgers fans will take umbrage with No. 53 ranking, I’m sure. By my standards — and with this schedule — a seven-win regular season is deserving of this spot.

Dream season The Scarlet Knights are one year ahead of schedule: 10-2, 6-1 in Big East play, atop the conference. And in a B.C.S. bowl, of course.

Nightmare season For the first time since 2004, Rutgers finishes below .500.

In case you were wondering

Where do Rutgers fans congregate? There’s plenty of coverage to be found at Scarlet Scuttlebutt, Keith Sargeant’s blog for the Home News Tribune, a central New Jersey paper. The best Rutgers blog is undoubtedly On the Banks; its mission statement — “Insomnia for the sleeping giant” — deserves our applause. For recruiting coverage, check out Scarlet Nation and State of Rutgers.

Up Next

Who is No. 52? Our next program made its bowl debut in a charity game benefiting the Under Privileged Children’s Milk Fund of Los Angeles.

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Comments

  1. Zaboo says:

    Fresno State next

  2. Jim Narby says:

    #52 is nebraska

  3. RU Professor says:

    I look forward to your blog every day.

    You wrote that Rutgers had independent status for 25 years before joining the Big East. What was that earlier conference, and how long was Rutgers a member?

    All direct mention seems to have been expunged from Rutgers written football history.

    Rutgers may be the only college football team that had an actual Japanese samurai warrior on its roster two centuries back.

    Paul: The Scarlet Knights were part of the little-known Middle Three Conference until 1975. It was basically an older version of the Patriot League: a typical schedule (1973, for instance) featured Bucknell, Lehigh, Colgate, Holy Cross and Lafayette.

  4. havik912 says:

    Wow, i was off, never thought about Rutgers. By the way, i think they have a really good chance of beating UNC, TJ Yates is awful, IMO, and unless the D pretty much stifles Rutgers, i can definitely see UNC losing.

  5. RUrugger98 says:

    FYI…. State of Rutgers has moved!!! The site is now…. http://www.stateofrutgers.com

  6. RUrugger98 says:

    State of Rutgers has moved…

  7. wildcat6 says:

    Christy Mathewson didn’t make the Bucknell all-defensive list? He was a Walter Camp All-American, and I assumed players played both ways in 1900.

    Paul: By all accounts, Mathewson was a very good football player. He was a kicker, however. Probably could have included that on the defensive players list, but I figure Mathewson’s gotten enough love for his baseball play.

  8. Jay says:

    Fresno St. played in the 1937 Charity Bowl in LA. They’re up next.

  9. jim says:

    The Middle Three was not a real conference, just a scheduling arrangement. No one ever paid any real attention to it. Back then, Princeton was Rutgers’ main rival in all sports till the move toward improving the schedule began in 1973.

    By the way, I hope that the Scarlet Knights make you eat your words!

    Paul: Anything else you can tell us about the Middle Three would be appreciated. And I hope you’re right: you have to respect what type of program Rutgers has grown into over the last five years.

  10. Jon says:

    Thanks for the mention Paul.

  11. Zach says:

    In your opinion is Rutgers the first BCS team you’ve gotten to so far that has a legitimate shot at its conference title?

    I don’t mean this as a shot at the big east, rather to point out the large amount of parity in that league.

    Paul: You know, I hadn’t thought of it that way, but you’re right. Yes, I think Rutgers is the first B.C.S. conference team I’ve previewed that has a real shot at a conference championship. Washington is close, but not yet. I think it’s more a statement on the Big East — both its parity and lack of a premier team — than about how good Rutgers may be. Though the Scarlet Knights are going to pretty good.

  12. Drew says:

    I missed the 9-win parade… Where was it held?

  13. [...] Senior strong safety Joe Lefeged, entering his third season in the starting lineup, has increased his consistency without costing him much of the aggressiveness that makes him one of the Big East’s more intimidating defensive backs. This is a good thing: [...]

  14. JoeD_in_NC_RU1989 says:

    What a great synopsis!!!! You know your RU football and I agree with your observation “…the underrated Frank Burns..”

    1979 victory over Tennessee at Knoxville???? The Big Orange fans chanting, “What’s a Rutgers? What’s a Rutgers?” 13 – 7 loss later, they had found out……of course. RU has gone out and lost the last 3 meetings againt Big Orange……time to get some SEC and Big 12 teams on the schedule…travel to Austin, to Athens, to Waco and to Knoxville. Anywhere anytime????

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