This post is sponsored by EA Sports NCAA Football 2011.
Rutgers football fans are starting to get more than a little impatient. In 2006, the Scarlet Knights missed winning the Big East title by a razor-thin margin. 2008 was their best chance yet, which ended up being derailed by an inexplicable stumble right out of the gate. Any hopes for winning last year were thrown away after freshman quarterback Tom Savage was pressed into action in the very first game. Now the future looks fairly bright, but we're all on the edge somewhat after the multiple near-misses in recent memory.
Rutgers will have a better chance of contending this fall as opposed to last year when going by personnel. The defense loses Devin McCourty and several other senior starters, but could well be better than ever with some of the younger players working their way up the depth chart like Logan Ryan, Khaseem Greene, Eric LeGrand, and Steve Beauharnais. Many freshmen were thrown into critical roles at the offensive skill positions in 2009. Tim Brown graduated, but Rutgers actually looks to be deeper and in better shape at receiver coming out of spring practice. If the offense can make any sort of improvement at all, then an already-good defensive unit should be far more rested and effective.
The season hinges on the play of a revamped offensive line; a unit that is still a question mark because several key contributors were out injured during spring practice. Rutgers loses three starters off last year's group, which badly struggled at times. If 2009 was a one-year aberration, and the OL is back up to its usual high standards, then Rutgers is undoubtedly a contender to win the Big East.. The linemen on the roster are talented, but if they struggle due to inexperience, then this will be more of a rebuilding year.
I'm inclined to split the difference, imaging a group that will mesh over the course of the season, really coming into their own as the calendar moves into November. That will be very bad news for when it comes to blocking North Carolina's loaded defense, but almost the entire Big East schedule for Rutgers is towards the end of the season. That will improve RU's chances at finishing with a good conference record.
This fall Rutgers will have a very young, very talented roster. Nine projected starters are seniors, but I count only twelve scholarship seniors (the two groups don't necessarily overlap). That portends well for the future, especially the 2011 season, but creates a great deal of uncertainty for this fall. It's not necessarily a good or bad sign; no one can guess with any confidence what will happen.
What can be said is that Rutgers is going to have the best quarterback in the Big East in Tom Savage, who could always make the leap and turn into a franchise player. In WR Mohamed Sanu and DT Scott Vallone, they have two of the most talented players in the entire Big East conference. If up and coming players like Art Forst and Manny Abreu can even come close to living up to their billing coming out of high school, then Rutgers is the only Big East team that will be able to match Pittsburgh's roster on pure talent.
There's a good chance that RU will finish in the top half of the Big East. For anyone counting on a conference championship though, you'll probably have to wait another year, because this squad will likely be the 2011 favorites. It's a very good roster, but too many talented, inexperienced players will go through growing pains this fall to overtake Pittsburgh. That is, unless Savage goes completely nuts. Which could very well happen, but unfortunately the Scarlet Knight fanbase might have to delay their hopes for just a little longer.
(Note: this post marks the end of the NCAA '11 campaign, but any regularly-scheduled previews here will be back on the plate at some point.)