The conventional wisdom is wrong: Rutgers football will win in 2011

People have short memories.

Think back four years ago. Rutgers was coming off a wonderful 2006 campaign, and averaged a rank in the late teens in the early preseason polls. The Scarlet Knights were ranked in the top twenty five the year before, and their roster looked arguably better on paper. The offense had really started to gel down the stretch the year before, evolving from a rudimentary play action attack wholly dependent on Ray Rice to an explosive, multi-faceted offense. That team was better on paper than it was in 2006. If Rutgers had a chance to replay 2006 and 2007 a hundred teams each, the 2007 team probably finishes with a better record. In real life, they did not, because the entire point of averaging out multiple simulations is to filter out the effect of the variance that can be markedly present in any one season. Rutgers had a few bad injuries, saw a few bad bounces, and ended up finishing far below their preseason expectations that year.

Why did the prognosticators overrate the Scarlet Knights that year? They drew an inference, based on 2006; in retrospect, it is very easy to see that the influence of that one season was far overrated, and the any good predictions should have reasonably used a far larger sample size. Rutgers fans are no different, in justifying being ranked highly, and screaming bloody murder when the team is not. Similarly, skeptics are always incensed when the team is media darlings (but always seem to gloss over how to how USF is the TEAM OF THE FUTURE every season), and content when RU is penciled in for the cellar.

Is there any empirical evidence pointing towards the causal factors that have seem to have the most predictive power in predicting a team's win/loss record in college football? Bill Connelly from Football Outsiders and Football Study Hall has researched this exact point.

It turned out that 4- and 5-year historical recruiting rankings are MUCH more predictive than I even would have thought, almost as much (from a correlations perspective) as 2-, 4-, and 5-year history. Recruiting rankings appear to matter a lot more than we wish they did.

Certainly last year's performance should be one of the biggest factors in compiling any set of preseason predictions, but it should not be the be-all end-all. The problem with solely looking at 2010, and doing a bit of adjustment to account for depth chart losses is that approach does not do a fair job of accounting for what's in the pipeline. Nor does it address incoming freshmen; Savon "it's pronounced 'Say-VONN" Huggins is going to be all kinds of awesome and all, but let's limit the discussion for the time being to underclassmen ready to step into larger roles. Here's a list of where Rivals.com ranked the eight Big East teams' recruiting classes over the past four years.

Team 2007 2008 2009 2010 Average
Cincinnati 8 7 5 4 6
Connecticut 7 8 6 8 7.5
Louisville 4 6 7 3 5
Pittsburgh 2 1 4 2 2.25
Rutgers 3 3 3 6 3.75
South Florida 6 5 2 5 4.5
Syracuse 5 4 8 7 6
West Virginia 1 2 1 1 1.25

What recruiting rankings tell us: based on what they supposedly have to work with Brian Kelly was a really good coach, Randy Edsall was better than average, and Greg Robinson was a punchline. As those three guys are no longer in the conference, shouldn't all things being equal, the conference standings roughly correspond to the recruiting rankings until if/when another coach establishes himself as exceptional in either direction? This jibes with the statistical story from above. Recruiting rankings matter a great deal. So does coaching. Recruiting is hardly the sole determinant of success, but it's pretty damn important, and ignored only at one's peril. Not all of those guys will pan out obviously, but it's absurd to suggest that one bad season made years of talent disappear into the ether. This isn't Ron Zook we're talking about here.

Connelly's specific projection for Rutgers this year takes the following factors into consideration:

 

Four-Year F/+ Rk 52
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 49
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** +7 / +2
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 15 (10, 5)
Yds/Pt Margin***** +0.0

Let's play another game of Optimist Versus Pessimist!

What The Optimist Sees: A team whose recent history is much better than what they produced last year, a team whose offensive coordinator might be much more in tune to the talent at hand and has 10 returning starters at his disposal, and a team that plays in a conference won by the 55th-best team in the country last year. (In other words, a team that could win a lot of games if they recover to their recent levels.)

What The Pessimist Sees: A team that went 1-6 in the aforementioned weak conference, a team that could have been much worse without some fumble luck, and a team that couldn't stop the pass in a conference that just got a lot better at passing.

Rutgers in particular from last season represents such a difficult case for two reasons. Kirk Ciarrocca's brief, tumultuous reign as primary play-caller had an inexplicably negative impact on the program's formerly stalwart offensive line. Seven step drops in the Shotgun formation will tend to do that. The group literally went from arguably the best in the country to unquestionably the worst. Now Ciarrocca's out in favor of Frank Cignetti Jr., and while there are lingering questions about the offensive line (who looked relatively improved in the spring, for what it's worth), and regarding Chas Dodd's ability to adapt to a pro-style offense, this group cannot possibly be as bad. Not with so many returning starters. Not with Savon. Not if the Big East's best receiving corps has anything to say about it.

Defense has not been a problem through the majority of Greg Schiano's tenure, which bodes will for his plan to once again retake supervision.. That was largely the case last fall, even if the group wasn't piling up sacks as much as they had in past seasons. Any difficulties could easily be attributed to the offense's historic futility not allowing the defense to receive a proper breather. Then, well, that is still a bit of a sore, traumatic subject around these parts, which is why site visitors usually will not see posts hanging on Eric LeGrand's every tweet. Coach Schiano did cross that Rubicon in March however. Eric LeGrand won't be suiting up this fall, and Rutgers will most likely be extremely green at defensive tackle as a result (unless Justin Francis shifts inside, which would create a solid starting line, but thin DE beyond the starters.)

Not having Eric will still hurt a lot on the field, but the team may finally begin the mental healing process as time passes. Losing LeGrand was more than about merely forfeiting critical depth, and one of the team's best players. How can a team or coaching staff practice or play without distractions when they are collectively worrying about whether the nicest, most amiable student-athlete on the team is going to live through the night, or ever walk again? How can that level of stress not have a broad effect on the overall team performance? When things are going bad, it might be a tad bit easier to pack it in if the very reality that there are far more important things in life than football is smacking the team directly in the face every time each of them drove an hour up the Parkway.

The point of the above exercise was not to beat up on the prognosticators too much; it is an extremely difficult exercise. However, they should exercise more caution and humility, and apply more caveats and qualifiers. That is, they will be completely in the clear when they submit their answers in the form of a dissertation, as opposed to a thousand-word column. No one in the Big East was exactly good last year, or at least in a manner that would represent any amount of confidence. Okay, West Virginia and Pittsburgh had loaded rosters, and were held back by awful and bad coaches respectively. Syracuse and Louisville represented the opposite side of that spectrum, with fledgling coaches wringing every last possible amount of effort out of limited rosters.

The proper response then is for everyone to just throw up their hands, and admit that there is adequate way to guess fairly at what's going to happen (besides the near-certainty that UConn is going to be terrible, of course.) Not that such a scenario has any chance in Hades of happening. What could have possibly happened over the past six months to inspire any level of confidence, whatsoever? Dana Holgorsen is an obvious candidate to be a significant upgrade on the sidelines, but isn't it fair to imagine at least a few stumbles in the road while he gets the right personnel in place for his spread attack.

In the absence of anything else that is even remotely concrete, why not go with the recruiting rankings? During the Big East's football revival from 2005-2008, it was West Virginia, Rutgers, Pitt, and the hot-coach-du-jour of the time (either Petrino at Louisville or Kelly at Cincinnati) ruling the roost. Sounds about right to me. There is no reason at all why Rutgers cannot turn in a normal, representative Greg Schiano season in 2011. That is; 7/8 total wins and 3/4 conference victories. Scarlet Knight fans may grow restless and impatient with that result. We may again think our coach's salary better reflects his team's off-field achievements than their on-field inconsistency. The most likely scenario for the 2011 Big East football season is that the final standings roughly correspond to the past few recruiting class rankings.

Face it world: Rutgers football is going to be mediocre-to-average again, and for this fall anyway, we are going to revel in it. This is Rutgers University people; a respected academic institution, not some Johnny-come-lately diploma mill. If we can be certain of anything at all, it would be the following two propositions: we know better than to watch even a second of coverage of the Casey Anthony trial, and we know that 2010 wasn't remotely representative of Rutgers football in the Greg Schiano era. Not on our watch. Surely holding a Rutgers sheepskin, or even the documented educational benefit conferred by virtue of living in or in close proximity to New Jersey ought to be enough to laugh off banal preseason analyses as not being worth the imaginary internet paper they were not printed on. So watch out, Pinstripe Bowl; come December, your overpriced rip-off game is not going to know what hit it.

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