College Football Realignment: Defending Rutgers

Look. I realise that attempting to defend a program that only just broke a twenty-one game in-conference losing streak is probably not going to go down very well. Yet I feel that I need to try. 

Across social media, forums and even the Full 10 Yards College group chats, we’re all discussing which smaller programmes are going to make way in what appears to be this new superconference era. The likes of Texas, Oklahoma and Clemson all appear to be on the move, which is opening up the biggest realignment for conferences in years. There’s talk of the Super-SEC, the PAC-16, the ACC saving itself by somehow convincing the proudly independent Notre Dame to join the club. It’s all up in the air, and despite that conversation beginning with the Sooners and the Longhorns it slowly will weave its way down to the Scarlet Knights of the world.

Why is that? Well it’s because the movement never stops at the top. As Texas lead the way, soon Iowa State will look to find themselves a profitable home. Once the big realignment begins you can believe that the likes of Cincinnati, Boise State and UCF will look to make their way to the Power Five. As the power scramble begins everybody will want to secure their place, which leaves a number of schools at risk.

Rutgers being one of the prominent examples of that. I’ve seen a lot of chat about potential conference realignments, and one of the biggest victims of them are the Scarlet Knights. That pesky twenty-one in-conference losing streak certainly didn’t help for a start, but this is also a program that went 8-32 through four years under Chris Ash. They haven’t even been competitive since 2015, and that naturally leaves some people prematurely looking to boot them out.

I think that’s a lot of recency bias though. People forget that Rutgers had seven winning seasons out of eight from 2005-2012, which included four bowl game victories. One of the victims of the Scarlet Knights, North Carolina. Yes that was just an eight year period of success, and yes they had a twenty-five year gap between bowl games leading up to that point, but there is a winning pedigree there. The secret ingredient of which, as I’ll come onto shortly, is back.

Beyond that previous success, Rutgers has also produced some serious NFL talent. Devin and Jason McCourty are obviously the headliners, but there is a lot more depth behind them. Super Bowl XLVII winning running back Ray Rice, Baltimore Ravens running back Gus Edwards, former Bengals and Falcons receiver Mohamed Sanu. They even have an argument to be THE University for the most important position of all.

Long Snapper. Yes both Clark Harris and Andrew DePaola of the Cincinnati Bengals and Minnesota Vikings both came through with the Scarlet Knights. What fantastic production. Clark Harris is arguably the best in the league, with a current streak of one thousand, six hundred and ninety nine consecutive playable snaps. Phwoar. With this kind of pedigree, how can you discount the Scarlet Knights.

Beyond the long snappers though, they key to an upturn in fortunes for Rutgers is Greg Schiano. He was Head Coach during the glory years of the programme, and after an unsuccessful stint as Tampa Bay Head Coach and stops in High School football and as Defensive Coordinator for Ohio State, he’s back. Unsurprisingly it has given the program the kind of lift they have been needing since he left.

There’s a lot of work that needs doing to take this program back to winning seasons, but the process has started nicely. They’ve implemented Offensive Coordinator Sean Gleeson’s up-tempo offence pretty successfully so far, with Nebraska transfer Noah Vedral becoming the first competent Quarterback they’ve had in half a decade at the helm of it. The defence also improved, ensuring they stayed in games throughout the season. Three of their losses were by one score, including a triple overtime loss to Michigan. They went 3-6 in 2020, and while that might not sound good, given their recent history it is a strong turnaround.

COLUMBUS, OH – NOVEMBER 7: Head coach Greg Schiano of the Rutgers Scarlet Knights leads the team onto the field ahead of a regular season game against the Ohio State Buckeyes on November 7, 2020 in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Benjamin Solomon/Getty Images)

So the results are on the up, and so is the recruiting under Schiano. The 2021 recruiting class ranked forty-first in the country, the best results since 2012, as their emphasis on recruiting New Jersey, New York and Eastern Pennsylvania bringing success. They signed five of the top fifteen New Jersey prospects in 2021, and have promising signs for 2022 as well with New Jersey’s number one prospect Jacob Allen committing to play Offensive Tackle. Alongside Allen they have fellow four star Anthony Johnson, a linebacker from Philadelphia, and another top ten New Jersey prospect in edge rusher Kenny Fletcher.

They also have a Four Star Quarterback in the 2022 recruiting class by the name of Gavin Wimsatt, who is probably the program’s most treasured recruit for a decade. A top ten Quarterback in the 2022 class, Wimsatt also had offers from Michigan, Notre Dame and Oregon. He chose Rutgers. He’s a year away from arriving at campus, but another year of progress from Greg Schaino’s roster should put him in a good enough situation to have some success. 

Even this year though there is a perfectly good chance of a solid season for the Scarlet Knights. Their first three games against Temple, Delaware and Syracuse are certainly winnable, and from their conference schedule they beat both Michigan State and Maryland last year. It’s tough to see any other wins on the schedule, maybe apart from Illinois, but if they can get up to six wins that will put them firmly in bowl game contention. 

Even if they do settle into a three or four win season, there is a direction here. There is a Head Coach who knows the terrain and knows how to win. There is a Quarterback on the way who can help them become properly competitive. There is an ever improving recruitment drive that can create a strong roster. They’ll never be Ohio State, but there is a way back to something like the glory days of 2005-2012 where they enjoyed seven winning seasons out of eight.

Beyond my belief in the direction of the Scarlet Knights, I think I’m using Rutgers as a microcosm of the intrigue and depth that smaller programmes provide to college football. They may suffer through some dreadful seasons, and I mean dreadful seasons, but who can forget those famous victories over Pittsburgh and the number 3 ranked Louisville in 2005 and 2006 respectively. They will have their ups and downs, but they are part of college footballs history and need to stay that way. 

Thankfully I firmly believe the Scarlet Knights will. 

So in this tumultuous period of conference realignment and the big boys getting their way, there will be smaller teams that get trampled over. There’s no doubt about it. Just don’t expect it to be Rutgers.

Follow Ed on Twitter @Farrardise

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