Rutgers Football: Will Scarlet Knights ever escape Big Ten cellar?

CHAMPAIGN, IL - OCTOBER 14: Head coach Chris Ash of the Rutgers Scarlet Knights is seen before the game against the Illinois Fighting Illini at Memorial Stadium on October 14, 2017 in Champaign, Illinois. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
CHAMPAIGN, IL - OCTOBER 14: Head coach Chris Ash of the Rutgers Scarlet Knights is seen before the game against the Illinois Fighting Illini at Memorial Stadium on October 14, 2017 in Champaign, Illinois. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images) /

After years of futility, Rutgers football is looking to escape the Big Ten’s cellar and become more than just a bottom-dweller.

Rutgers is commonly referred to as “The Birthplace of College Football” and rightfully so. On one autumn day in November 1869, the Scarlet Knights faced off against Princeton in what was considered to be the first ever collegiate football game.

In theory, such a long history should equate to a Scarlet Knights program that has triumphed through the years, however that has not been the case recently—mostly due to the fact that the school embarked on a new journey by entering the Big Ten in 2014, effectively rendering a step up in the level of competition.

The “banks on the old Raritan” have been quiet lately after three consecutive losing seasons. Rutgers has not been ranked since the 2012 season, a year when it was deadlocked in a four-way tie with Louisville, Cincinnati and Syracuse for first place in the now defunct Big East football conference.

Let me preface this article by saying I come from Rutgers blood. My one side of the family has a storied history with the university and as a result, I have had Rutgers season tickets since I was five years old.

That being said, I’ve witnessed first-hand the good, the bad and the ugly of Rutgers football.

The good: five bowl game victories under former head coach Greg Schiano.

The bad: Gary Nova throwing six interceptions against Kent State in 2012.

The ugly: a Kyle Flood fiasco that resulted in his suspension and later his termination for committing NCCA academic infractions.

When Rutgers announced it was leaving the American Conference for the Big Ten, I wasn’t too thrilled because, at that point, the Scarlet Knights had yet to win a conference title outright as a member of a Group of Five conference.

Yes, there was much allure to the Big Ten. Not only is it the nation’s oldest conference with a rich history, but it would also signal great enhancements. This included a conference-wide media network with the ability to garner greater exposure into the national spotlight.

Rutgers faced entering a conference with teams that have historically come to dominate the college football game. This very prospect, although a courageous leap forward, almost guaranteed that the Rutgers Scarlet Knights would be perennial dungeon-dwellers in their new Power Five conference. That has remained true at least for the last three seasons.

Rutgers now aims to become a contender in the Big Ten, but the odds are certainly stacked against it. Not only is it a part of the tougher East division, but also it also faces the challenge of losing highly sought-after recruits to other teams in the conference.

The big looming question remains, can Rutgers ever get out of the cellar? I am a firm believer the answer to that question is a cautiously optimistic yes, but for me, that response treads carefully on one major caveat—keeping top in-state recruits.

Savon Huggins, a former Rutgers running back, was one such top-flight recruit that decided it was best to stay true to his Jersey roots with his commitment. The four-star recruit had excitement brewing, only to be offset by a tumultuous college career that began with fumbling issues and eventually a bevy of injuries that ultimately derailed his college career before transferring to Northern Iowa to complete his eligibility.

Huggins is just one example of a player to ponder what could have happened if he flourished in Piscataway. Maybe if he made a big splash donning the scarlet and white, he could have jumpstarted a mass movement for in-state talent to stay.

More from Rutgers Scarlet Knights

The state of New Jersey is marked by several high school programs that command a football prowess. Take just one area in particular, North Jersey, which is home to bluebloods that annually churn out Division I players. Some of these schools include Paramus Catholic, Don Bosco, St. Peter’s Prep, Bergen Catholic, St. Joe’s and DePaul.

In recent years, these schools produced players that slipped by Rutgers’ grasp. For instance, guys like Jabrill Peppers, who came from Paramus Catholic, chose to attend Michigan and now plays in the NFL. Two other current Michigan players, Rashan Gary and Kareem Walker, are also both native New Jersians.

Recruiting plays a pivotal role for a college team on a year by year basis. It can replenish top stars that leave for the pros, or it can add depth for a team to develop players waiting in the wings.

Rutgers has snatched in-state recruits that have panned out and had fruitful careers as Scarlet Knights. Some people that come to mind on this front are Jeremy Zuttah, Logan Ryan and the McCourty brothers. More notable is Mohamed Sanu, who inked a major deal and is now on the rise as a top receiver in the NFL playing for the Atlanta Falcons.

The key for the future of Rutgers football rests on the contingency of retaining the cream of the crop from New Jersey while also continuing to target some of its bigger out-of-state regions such as South Florida and Pennsylvania.

If Rutgers can get in-state high school prospects to see value in the program and trust the system, that can translate to a lot of wins in the foreseeable future. But it won’t be an overnight process either. It will have to be a long-term goal if anything else.

As far as this season goes, there can reasonably be some positive narratives that forecast the Scarlet Knights achieving at least a 6-6 season and obtaining bowl eligibility. Rutgers has three very winnable games early on against Texas State, Buffalo and Kansas, a team that is arguably the worst out of all the Power 5 conferences combined. The Scarlet Knights will also square off against three Big Ten teams on the weaker end of the conference scales like Indiana, Illinois and Maryland.

Worst case scenario: Rutgers collects the three surefire wins in the early part of the season and struggles mightily the rest of the year. It grabs a win in the mix of things and barely makes it out alive, limping to a 4-8 finish.

Best case scenario: Rutgers finds a way to compete in the Big Ten and knocks off some teams on its way to a winning 8-4 season. After all, this mark has proven to be achievable as the inaugural 2014 Big Ten Rutgers team finished the season with eight victories.

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Another football season is on the horizon and perhaps, this could be the year Rutgers makes some noise and avoids bottom-feeding in the Big Ten. As Chris Carlin once voiced in 2006 when Rutgers knocked off a then-No. 3 seeded Louisville team, will there ever be “pandemonium in Piscataway” once again? Perhaps, only time will tell.