Just one more weekend of no college football. The previews are out, depth charts are being set, and game prep has started for almost every team. 2012 was a banner year for Rutgers, as Kyle Flood brought a shared conference championship to Piscataway. RU avoided armageddon, receiving an invite to the Big Ten, firmly entrenching the State University of New Jersey in the elite community of big time football (and basketball). The NFL Draft and NFL preseason was/is littered with former Knights, and two former Rutgers stars competed for the Lombardi Trophy. A bright future lies ahead for RU, but before we get there, we must bid adieu to the last remnants of the former Big East.
What will 2013 bring for Rutgers? Plenty of unknowns make any type of prediction shaky at best. The conference home for Rutgers since 1991 was gutted, with West Virginia leaving before the 2012 season and Syracuse and Pittsburgh starting ACC play this year. Newcomers Memphis, UCF, and the Texas duo of Houston and SMU offer brand new conference rivals, if only for one year. Do the new additions provide a net loss in strength of schedule, or a net gain?
Not only does RU have new faces in the schedule, but the roster has experienced quite a bit of turnover as well. Defensive stalwarts Khaseem Greene, Steve Beauharnais, Scott Vallone, and Logan Ryan are all gone (if you haven't been reminded of that about one million times already). Jawan Jamison, a 1,000 yard rusher last season, is now playing for the Redskins. In addition to new players taking over, new coordinators will be making their debut as well. Ron Prince is in at offensive coordinator with Dave Brock heading off to Delaware. Robb Smith joins Greg Schiano down in Tampa, allowing LB coach Dave Cohen to continue the defensive coaching pedigree at Rutgers.
The problem with preseason previews is that unknown factors are automatically seen as a hindrance to success, rather than an improvement. Obviously, a leader and player like Khaseem is impossible to replicate. However, for the 2013 season, there are more possibilities for improvement than regression. The fact of the matter is that West Virginia, Syracuse, and Pittsburgh are stronger programs than Houston, SMU, and UCF (Rutgers doesn't play Memphis this year). Add in a Temple team that is expected to finish last in the American this year, and the schedule is considerably easier than last season. Of course, it's entirely possible that a team like UCF can finish higher than Syracuse or Pittsburgh, but the transition to an overall tougher conference will take its toll on the Knights from Orlando. I don't see UCF finishing ahead of Rutgers this season, even with a returning Blake Bortles.
Coordinator turnover has been a problem for Rutgers going back four years now, specifically on the offensive side of the ball. Continuity is always favored in college football, and when a QB changes coordinators several times in his career, it is seen as a detriment to the program. For any other school, that would most likely be the case. For Rutgers, it will be a benefit in 2013 and beyond. Dave Brock had a very bland gameplan that became stale towards the end of the season. His tenure as offensive play-caller resulted in the 98th ranked scoring offense in college football. As OC at Virginia, Ron Prince produced the 50th, 48th, and 28th ranked scoring offenses in '02, '03, and '04, respectively. If you were a math major in college, go ahead and check my work: 98 > 28. Even when Matt Schaub left for the NFL after the '03 season, Prince was able to get 2,492 yards and a 62% completion percentage from Marques Hagans in '05. His best year in '04, Prince had a 1,000 yard back in Alvin Pearman and an 800 yard rusher in Wali Lundy. These aren't Oregon numbers, but RU doesn't need that kind of production. They just need enough not to be a liability, and Prince has proven capable of producing a competent offense.
How do you go about replacing a two-time defensive player of the year? You don't. Simple as that. The Rutgers defense will most likely take a step back from their stellar 2012 campaign. However, it's important to remember where the defense is taking a step back from. If you haven't already, take a look at Bill Connelly's Rutgers preview. Look at the defensive ranks: all top ten ranks in each category. Regression is never a good thing, but regressing from the best defense in the conference requires context. Rutgers may not be number one again after losing so much personnel, but the system is in place for players like Kevin Snyder and Jamal Merrell to succeed. The defensive pedigree established by Schiano lives on, and the new faces will carry on the legacy passed on by former players. It's all about balance. In 2012, the defense undoubtedly carried the offense in many wins last year. For 2013, I expect the offense to improve quite a bit to make up for the small regression in the defense. For that reason, I don't expect Rutgers to lose more than three or four games.
That gives me a baseline of 9-3, with a deviation of one game, opening up the possibility of a 10-2 or 8-4 regular season. Where do I see the losses? You can circle the Louisville game as a tough out. You're probably tired of hearing his name, but thus far in his career, Teddy Bridgewater has proven he can flat out ball. Coupled with the fact that Louisville brings back a bunch of talent, Charlie Strong figures to live up to most of the hype this year. Fresno State will be tough as well, only because that matchup is the first game of the season. Rutgers has had a penchant for showing up ill-prepared for early or opening games (Tulane '12, UNC '11, FCS-Norfolk State '10), and going up against NFL-bound Derek Carr only makes matters worse. I think it will be close, but as of now, I see that as a loss.
Two other weekends are possible for upsets. For whatever reason, homecoming has been a thorn in the side of Rutgers in recent years (Kent State '12, Navy '11, Tulane '10), as has been Thanksgiving weekend (Pitt '12, UConn '11). These could all be purely coincidental, but it's worth pointing out since in each of those contests, the Scarlet Knights came out lifeless against those opponents. This season, Houston is penciled in for Homecoming on October 26. Houston loses Charles Sims at RB but should have a potent passing attack with David Piland at the helm. Piland threw for nearly 3,000 yards in 2012 and has 10 of his 13 leading receivers back. Defense will be the deciding factor, as the Cougars were ranked 110th in points allowed for 2012.
Our almost-rivals in Storrs await for a Thanksgiving weekend matchup. In 2011, with a co-championship on the line, Connecticut absolutely dominated the Scarlet Knights in East Hartford. Will the Huskies get the upset again? Last time I checked, Chandler Whitmer was still QB for Coach P's squad, so I'll go with no. They really had no business beating Rutgers in 2011 either though, and with it being a semi-rivalry, you never know what can happen. Like Rutgers, UConn does lose quite a bit on defense with Dwayne Gratz and Blidi Wreh-Wilson gone, as well as Trevardo Williams and Sio Moore. Unlike Rutgers, I don't see their offense improving that much due to a talent deficit.
Cincinnati and UCF also present the toughest challenges in the American. Many are high on the Bearcats with Tommy Tuberville leading the charge, but I'm not buying. They will be decent, but I think Rutgers gets the best of the Bearcats at home in Piscataway. Can UCF challenge for the title? Blake Bortles is good, but the Knights of Orlando have a tendency to take a season off after having a good year. Coupled with a step up in competition, I see UCF as finishing no higher than fourth in the conference.
So there you have it. 9-3 in the regular season, with losses to Fresno State, Louisville, and an upset loss at home to Houston. I expect Rutgers to get better as the season progresses, and end the season with a bowl win to go 10-3. How do you think Rutgers will finish? Vote in the poll below and leave a comment with projected wins or losses.