Considering the levels of angst, the massive tale of early-2010s conference realignment didn’t affect that many power conference programs.
- Texas A&M and Missouri joined the SEC.
- Louisville, Pitt, and Syracuse joined the ACC.
- Colorado and Utah joined the Pac-12.
- TCU and West Virginia joined the Big 12.
- Nebraska, Maryland, and Rutgers joined the Big Ten.
That’s some impressive movement, but it only represents about 20 percent of the power conference roster. For all the apocalyptic projections, that means about 80 percent of the P5 remained the same.
Most of the programs involved have proved their bona fides to their new conferences. Most have had at least a couple of shining moments. Texas A&M and Louisville have boasted Heisman winners in their new conferences. TCU nearly made the College Football Playoff in 2014. Missouri, Nebraska, and Colorado have combined for four division titles. Utah and West Virginia have each experienced 10-win seasons. Pitt knocked off eventual national champion Clemson last year. Syracuse and Maryland have at least had hoops success.
Rutgers has had what we’ll politely call a slightly different experience: The Scarlet Knights have become the unwitting face of All That’s Wrong With Realignment. From the start, the addition of RU to the conference lineup was seen as nothing more than a television money grab, a way of sneaking into the back door of the New York market.
That view was a little unfair; at the time of their announced move in November 2012, the Scarlet Knights were wrapping up their fourth nine-win season in six years and were coming off of the signing of a top-25 class. They won 11 games and finished 12th in the AP poll in 2006, and they averaged 8.3 wins per year from 2006-12. For that matter, they went 8-5 in 2014, their first year in their new conference.
Things took a turn. The school began a long string of PR defeats — a verbally incompetent athletic director, an abusive basketball coach, a football coach forgetting basic rules of decorum, a series of arrests — and recruiting trailed off. Head coach Kyle Flood was dismissed following a 4-8 2015, and he left he Ash with a mess.
Ash’s first roster was athletic but unbalanced. Rutgers had running backs and a decent offensive line but no quarterbacks. The Scarlet Knights had play-makers on the defensive line but no size. Injuries rendered a young set of linebackers and defensive backs completely ineffective. And did I mention the quarterback situation?
It was bad. Really bad. After falling to 106th in S&P+ in 2015, the Knights managed to fall even further, to 114th. The defense improved by a decent amount, but the offense was almost certainly the worst in the Power 5.
After scoring 89 against Howard and New Mexico during a 2-1 start, RU scored a combined 86 in nine conference games — 59 against Minnesota and Indiana and 27 in the other seven games. They were shut out four times.
This was the worst-case scenario, and it affirmed every cynical opinion the conference’s addition of Rutgers conjured. (Local columnists haven’t exactly helped, even if the conference’s practice of giving long-term junior membership is worth poking at.)
The good news is that Rutgers probably isn’t as far away from decent play as it seems. Ash signed RU’s best class in five years, and the team will only have a small handful of impact seniors this fall.
Mind you, the Scarlet Knights aren’t going to be good in 2017. Even with a couple of interesting transfers, the offense is still going to have a low ceiling, and the defensive line now has to rebuild. But after a pretty drastic Year Zero, Ash might provide proof of concept thanks to a far more seasoned defensive back seven and a new/old offensive coordinator. Plus, as defensive coordinator at Wisconsin in 2011-12 and co-coordinator at Ohio State in 2014-15, Ash showed a propensity for second-year improvement.
It wasn’t that long ago that RU was showing signs of potential. The Scarlet Knights were 9-1 late in 2012, and their Big Ten debut in 2014 featured a win over Michigan, a near-defeat of Penn State, and a bowl romp over North Carolina. But the last two years have served as a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s up to Ash to turn that around.
2016 in review
You will rarely see QB stats as bad as what Rutgers produced in 2016. Junior Chris Laviano began as starter and completed 48 percent of his passes over parts of seven games. He was just 22-for-49 in Rutgers’ wins, and in shutout losses to Ohio State and Michigan, he went 4-for-20. He was mercifully benched after producing a passer rating of just 100.2, and replacement Giovanni Rescigno managed just a 102.6. In brief appearances, backups Zach Allen and Tylin Oden completed just two of 20 passes. That the No. 1 receiving target (Jawuan Harris) was a freshman probably didn’t help.
Rutgers ranked 124th in Passing S&P+, and the only real surprise there is that four FBS teams (Tulane, Kansas, Charlotte, Kent State) graded out worse. This had an obvious effect. When RU was able to establish the run game, the Knights produced a little offense. When the defense was too good against the run, RU had no Plan B.
After a month of scraping by with decent defense and mediocre offense, Rutgers ran out of tricks. Injuries at linebacker, defensive back, and receiver wiped out depth, and the reserves were lacking. Both sides of the ball succumbed.
- First 4 games (2-2): Avg. percentile performance: 48% (31% offense, 50% defense) | Avg. score: RU 27, Opp 26
- Last 8 games (0-8): Avg. percentile performance: 21% (17% offense, 27% defense) | Avg. score: Opp 45, RU 10
When offensive coordinator Drew Mehringer left to become Tom Herman’s receivers coach and passing game coordinator at Texas, Ash brought in an older hand. New coordinator Jerry Kill was Minnesota’s head coach from 2011-15 until health concerns led to his resignation; his Gopher offenses were physical and ground-based, and after stints as head coach of Northern Illinois and Minnesota, he’s no stranger to a rebuild. He has a set of transfers and some interesting freshmen and sophomores. We’ll see how much of a difference these new pieces can make in one year.
And we’ll see if a healthy, experienced defensive back seven can offset the attrition on the line.
If you adjust for degree of difficulty, the fact that Robert Martin averaged 5.2 yards per carry was ridiculously impressive. The senior-to-be dealt with multiple injuries and had one of the worst passing games in the country backing him up. He carried 42 times for 275 yards (6.5 per carry) against New Mexico and Iowa and managed a combined 30 for 168 (5.6) against Illinois and Maryland.
Martin spent time in Ash’s dog house, and his production was inconsistent, but … of course it was. He had less peripheral support than virtually any back in the country. And even with him, Rutgers had the least efficient and least explosive offense in the Big Ten.
One shouldn’t underestimate the impact that Janarion Grant’s injury had, though. Grant caught 20 passes in four games, but he suffered a season-ending injury at the end of a 76-yard screen pass. From virtually that point forward, RU had no passing threat.
Grant, Martin, and two-year starting guard Dorian Miller give the Rutgers offense a little senior leadership. Even more could come from transfers. Ash made liberal use of the graduate transfer rule. Louisville quarterback Kyle Bolin, Miami running back Gus Edwards, and Arkansas receiver Damon Mitchell could play heavy roles this fall, as could traditional transfer Jerome Washington, a sophomore tight end from Miami.
Adding in other pieces like sophomore receiver Jawuan Harris (RU’s leading receiver in Grant’s absence), backup running back Josh Hicks, and perhaps incoming four-star freshman receiver Bo Melton, you might be looking at a retooled two-deep at the skill positions. Granted, the line now has to be restructured — three players who combined for 31 of last year’s 60 line starts are gone — but Miller and left tackle Tariq Cole should assure decent quality.
The pressure on Bolin is immense, though. Laviano and Oden transferred, leaving Bolin, Rescigno, Allen, and incoming freshman Jonathan Lewis, and of that foursome, Bolin is by far the most proven. He threw for 681 yards in the final two games of 2014, and he showed potential in tight early-2015 losses to Houston and Clemson.
Bolin lost the starting job to Lamar Jackson, but he has 2,104 career passing yards and a 140.8 passer rating. He is a play-maker and risk-taker, but if Martin, Edwards, and Hicks find traction on the ground in Kill’s physical system, he and Grant could provide more upside in the passing game.
There’s only so much improvement that can be expected after a No. 125 Off. S&P+ ranking, but this was quite the blood transfusion. Rutgers’ offense might not be great, but it will look nothing like last year’s.
Rutgers’ defense had no chance. For starters, the offense was unsupportive dreck. Your ceiling is only going to be so high when you are constantly on the field, knowing that allowing a single touchdown almost ends your chances of victory.
Beyond that, we almost never saw the projected starting lineup. End Quanzell Lambert, the line’s leading play-maker in 2015, played in four games. Linebackers Greg Jones, Najee Clayton, Isaiah Johnson, and Andre Hunt missed a combined 36 games between them. The secondary featured safety Anthony Cioffi, cornerback Isaiah Wharton, and a “Who’s healthy this week?” grab bag.
That the Scarlet Knights still ranked 56th in Def. S&P+ was a testament to their drive-finishing ability as much as anything, but in this defense-friendly conference, they still brought up the rear.
The bad news is that the line again has to replace its only known play-makers. Lambert is gone, as are end Julian Pinnix-Odrick (10 TFLs in 2016) and tackle Darius Hamilton, the former blue-chipper who managed to stay on the field last year after missing 2015 but never returned to his pre-injury form. Cioffi is gone, too.
The good news: virtually everybody else is back, and thanks to injury, there is solid experience.
The even better news: there might only be two or three senior contributors. If the offense gets its act together in 2018 and beyond, the defense might be good enough to power a bowl bid.
- Defensive end Darnell Davis. The former walk-on couldn’t match Lambert’s 2015 but did manage eight tackles for loss and two sacks. And in backup action, ends Kemoko Turay and Jimmy Hogan and tackles Kevin Wilkins and Jon Bateky combined for 10 TFLs and 4.5 sacks. There are no 320-pound earth movers, but the line does appear to have decent depth, especially if it gets something out of a young end like Elorm Lumor, Brendan Bordner, or Mike Tverdov.
- Linebackers Trevor Morris and Deonte Roberts. The duo didn’t make a ton of plays as sophomores (just 6.5 TFLs between them), but along with sophomore Tyreek Maddox-Williams and juniors Brandon Russell and Eric Margolis, they combined for a green unit that is far less green this time. If the line is stable — not the smallest “if” in the world — the linebacking corps should be capable. And again, there are exciting youngsters (true freshman Tyshon Fogg, redshirt freshman Solomon Manning) waiting.
- Cornerbacks Blessuan Austin and Isaiah Wharton. The juniors were tasked with far more than expected last year and combined for a healthy 21 passes defensed. They’ll be joined by sophomores Damon Hayes and 2015 contributor Jarius Adams, and if junior safeties Kiy Hester and Saquan Hampton are healthy (they missed a combined nine games), Rutgers should have a solid secondary in 2017 and a downright awesome one in 2018.
There’s talent here, and you figure Ash and coordinator Jay Niemann (former DC at Northern Illinois and Ash’s DC at Drake in the 1990s) will utilize it. By 2018, the offense will need only to be mediocre for Rutgers to be competitive.
Janarion Grant was only beginning to figure out potential as a receiver when he got hurt last year, but he had long since proven his worth as a return man. He has eight career return touchdowns and had already scored two last year when he went down. His return alone means improvement for Rutgers’ special teams unit.
Unless he can kick or cover, though, his return doesn’t fix all of his team’s special teams woes. Rutgers ranked an awful 123rd in Special Teams S&P+, thanks to below-average place-kicking (David Bonagura missed two PATs and mad only one of 40 longer field goals) and maybe the worst combined kick and punt teams in the country. Bonagura’s kickoffs almost never reached the end zone, and Rutgers ranked 99th in both kick and punt return average allowed and 126th in both kickoff and punt efficiency. Yuck.
Bonagura and punter Michael Cintron are both back, for better or worse.
Believe it or not, Rutgers optimists do exist — I have met a couple of them — and if they tell you their team might not be awful this fall, don’t laugh them off. Granted, they might be awful again, but there’s reason to believe a bounce back is in the works.
The defense got a lot of experience last year thanks to injuries, and there’s a core of sophomore and junior play-makers who should produce a top-60 or so ranking this year, then something even better next year.
Meanwhile, the offense has the new blood and experience it was dying for last year.
A solid defense, paired with an offense that features Martin, Edwards, Bolin, Grant, Mitchell, and a decent line? That’s not a Big Ten East contender, but it’s not one of the worst teams in the country either. S&P+ projects Rutgers 92nd, and I’m thinking something more in the range of 80th.
With home games against EMU, Morgan State, Purdue, Maryland (well, it’s at Yankee Stadium), and Michigan State, plus a less than intimidating trip to Illinois, RU could easily rise to 4-8 or 5-7 this fall. That’s not amazing, and it’s not even where the Knights were as recently as 2014, but after 2016’s disaster, it would be progress.