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Does Rutgers have the talent to compete in the Big Ten?

An objective, subjective, and iconoclastic look at torturing a point to its logical end

The Star-Ledger-US PRESSWIRE

Clearly, Rutgers fans and Big Ten partisans are not exactly seeing eye to eye over the value that Rutgers adds to the Big Ten as a football program. There's no point in contesting the historical argument. The truth is that Rutgers has had a mediocre football history, not an awful one, but no one cares much for that distinction. Fine, although anyone who thinks that the Knights are a historical doormat should be appointed to the executive board of the Midwestern Journal of Being Completely Wrong. Presently, one argument is simply to dismiss Rutgers because of scheduling, or losing to Kent State (they were only trying to fit in with the rest of the league with that.) Supposedly, they'll join and turn into another Indiana.

This is where the various computer polls can be helpful as an evaluation tool. Their algorithms may ultimately end up flawed. Abstractly speaking, the best algorithms should be based on regression analysis designed to ferret out which factors are the most closely related to winning, and then build their models to emphasize the right stats. Still, methodological issues or not, the computers are at least free from subjective bias. All other things being equal, that inherently makes them far better evaluators than mere humans (Mike Trout 4 eva!) Here's where a variety of statistical metrics rank Rutgers this season:

Sagarin 34
Football Outsiders 36
Colley Matrix 19
Massey 28
Billingsley 21

Some computer polls on higher than RU than others. FO is an average of S&P+ (which doesn't like the Knights this year) and FEI (which does.) The above sample was just meant to be a basket of some of the more prominent polls, and not an attempt to cherry pick favorable rankings. If there is a notable exception here, by all means point it out. Per Massey, the mean poll this season has Rutgers comfortably at #22, with a high of #9 and a low of #68. That slots in fourth in the Big Ten, following Ohio State, Michigan, and Nebraska. Obviously, even if you believe these averages, they certainly vary from year to year, and there are still three games left in the season for better or worse.

What about a more qualitative metric? Recruiting rankings obviously are not perfect, but certainly do have some predictive value. How about a four-year average of Rivals class rankings from 2009-2012 as a rough estimate of available talent?

Ohio State 10.75
Michigan 14
Nebraska 22.5
Michigan State 29.75
Penn State 30.5
Maryland 35
Rutgers 39.5
Iowa 44.5
Illinois 52.75
Minnesota 53.5
Wisconsin 56.5
Purdue 63.5
Indiana 69
Northwestern 70.5

Obviously, caveats are abound here as well. Individual year rankings are not really comparable to each other in many respects. Nor does this metric account for the ordinal rankings not being cardinal numbers, which makes averaging more than a little dicey. Rating prospects is a flawed system that is inherently prone to bias, both direct, and through different regional raters applying varying standards. Maryland isn't nearly this good, although that owes in part to some recent personnel losses. Recruiting matters, but is not everything, as the cases of Northwestern and Wisconsin can attest to. That latter one is odd, because UW's 2010 ranking on Rivals was more than a little strange. Clearly the Badgers and Wildcats do a great job of coaching and/or scouting and/or talent development however. Rutgers has been recruiting at a level in the Big East that would land them smack dab in the middle of the Big Ten. Which happens to be...exactly where most Rutgers fans would probably peg them fairly.

This brings to mind the first principles for this very site. These are a core set of beliefs winnowed down and refined through the years, if only to keep the collective sanity of Rutgers fans intact in the presence of unspeakable horrors that have thankfully since been blotted out through years of therapy over the past decade. College football talent does not closely correlate with population density. There are lots of good players that come from California, Texas, and Florida. America's best armchair theorists have taken a crack at this question and will undoubtedly continue to do so. For decades, the Big Ten grew fat mining Yankee gridiron hotbeds in Pennsylvania and Ohio. Their relative decline in favor of the sun belt (not the Sun Belt mind you) as of late is frequently cited as a contributing factor towards the Big Ten's recent struggles. This same citation of local talent has been frequently offered up as evidence for optimistic projections for Rutgers, South Florida, and a bevy of other supposed sleeping giants like Maryland or Illinois.

These arguments are right to a point, and should not be completely discounted as they often are. Obviously, events in the past happened as they did, are not subject to change absence the presence of a DeLorean. College football periodically watches new powers rise and fall (Miami! Florida State! Miami again! Boise! Oregon!), but there is an entrenched power structure that serves to make these sorts of cataclysmic changes far more difficult, and that factor is only going to be exacerbated with the rise of super conferences and the growing financial disparity between college athletic programs. However, it is also the case that the sum of college football history overall consists of a relatively small sample size, and there definitely is a danger in seeing accumulated tradition as completely static and unchanging. Where'd the Carisle Indian School go anyway?

That's all well and good, but the part that really seems troubling and unintuitive to critics is the notion that while winning certainly owes a lot to skill and resources, a lot of what occurred probably happened as it did did due to luck and/or accidents of history; far more than we are comfortably willing to concede anyway. Let's call this the modal argument. There was probably always going to be good, being a gigantic college football located in Ohio. Who's to say that eighteenth century Ohio backroom politicking doesn't go a little different, and that program is located in Columbus?

Counterfactually, what if Joe Paterno listens to his father and becomes a lawyer? Imagine Barry Alvarez or Hayden Fry never leading their programs out of irrelevance, or Bob Devaney could have decided to coach rugby instead (perish the thought), or Fielding Yost being set upon by a mob of angry Irishmen yielding sacks of potatoes (or just catching a really bad cold.) It could have like, totally happened man, just like the alternate reality where Betamax and New Coke won. The point is that you all should get ready to bow down to your future overlords in Piscataway, College Park, and Champaign. Don't say we didn't warn you.