We are now a week and a half into 2016 and less than eight months away from the first football game of the Chris Ash era! While the coaching, schemes, makeup and outlook for our own team will be different than this past season, making it difficult to make any projections, it's still fun to look at who the opponents will be. Next season marks a major change with conference scheduling, as a ninth game has been added by commissioner Jim Delany. That should make things even more challenging for Rutgers quest to get back to a bowl game for the tenth time in the past twelve seasons. Let's take a look at the schedule for next season, including the opponents 2015 record and S&P+ ranking. (Rutgers finished 105th this past season).
Sept 3rd: At Washington 7-6; 12th
This is a tough first game for the Chris Ash Era to begin on, against a rising Pac-12 team on the road. Washington won their last three games of this season over Oregon State, Washington State and Southern Miss by scoring 47 points a game. Their quarterback Jake Browning and star running back Myles Gaskin were both true freshman. This team is primed to break out in 2016 and Rutgers will be significant underdogs in the season opener.
Sept 10th: Howard 1-10; FCS School
This will be the last time Rutgers will ever play Howard, due to the Big Ten requiring its members to stop scheduling FCS schools in the future. Despite the opponent, the first home game of the season should have some extra buzz with Ash's debut in Piscataway. Hope will be alive, regardless of the outcome of the first game in Seattle.
Sept 17th: New Mexico 7-6; 101st
Former Notre Dame coach Bob Davie brings the Lobos east in the last non-conference game on the schedule for Rutgers. They lost their bowl game to Arizona 45-37. Sophomore quarterback Lamar Jordan is a dual threat behind center, but ran for nine touchdowns, four more than he passed for scores in 2015. Teriyon Gipson ran for 850 yards on 5.8 yards out of the backfield in the run heavy offense, which sees leading rusher Jhurell Pressley graduate after rushing for 907 yards and 11 touchdowns. Ash's new look defense will sure to be tested well before the Big Ten schedule begins.
Sept 24th: Iowa 12-2; 47th
And just like that, Ash will coach his first conference game at Rutgers against the defending West champion. Quarterback C.J Beathard will be a senior and looking to improve on a solid 2015 season, when he completed 62% of his passes and threw 17 touchdowns to just 5 interceptions. It will be Rutgers first ever meeting against the Hawkeyes and the start of the first nine game conference schedule in Big Ten history.
Oct 1st: At Ohio State 12-1; 3rd
If there is a road game to attend next season, this is it. Ash's homecoming at the Horseshoe against the Buckeyes. Teacher Urban Meyer taking on his pupil and several other former employees. Not to mention, Rutgers facing Greg Schiano in a game that would never have happened if not for him. Lots of storyline's with this one and hopefully Ash can get our team to deliver a performance worthy of the drama.
Oct 8th: Michigan 10-3; 6th
We know Michigan will have a new starting quarterback next season, but whoever it is, Jim Harbaugh has this program on the rise. Adding coach Don Brown as defensive coordinator, replacing former DC and now Maryland coach D.J. Durkin, was a great hire. Brown led the Boston College defense to the #1 ranking this past season. I'm sure with Rutgers coach Chris Ash and several other former Ohio State staffers here now, this will add even more juice to this annual match-up.
Oct 15th: Illinois 5-7; 61st
Former Rutgers offensive coordinator Bill Cubit became the head coach of Illinois, after leading them on an interim basis this past season. With receiver Mike Dudeck expected to return after a torn ACL, quarterback Wes Lunt should be primed for a great senior season. Although Rutgers has never played the Illini as a member of the Big Ten before, it will be their third all-time meeting. Rutgers opened their magical 2006 season with a 33-0 win against Illinois, gaining redemption after losing to them in overtime the season before.
Oct 22nd: At Minnesota 6-7; 37th
It will be the first meeting ever against Minnesota, who be in their first full season under new head coach Tracy Claeys. The Gophers traditionally have a strong defense, but have struggled on offense in recent years. Quarterback Mitch Leidner and breakout freshman running back Shannon Brooks will be back next season, so improvement should be expected. This will be a tough road game for Rutgers for sure.
Oct 29th: BYE
A much needed break falls two-thirds into the schedule, giving Rutgers a chance to rest up for a stretch run hopefully highlighted by gaining bowl eligibility.
Nov 5th: Indiana 6-7; 60th
As bad as the 2015 campaign turned out, Rutgers was still able to beat Indiana, this time in dramatic fashion. The Hoosiers will replace quarterback Nate Sudfeld, most likely with athletic Zander Diamont, who Rutgers saw in 2014. The strength for Indiana will be in the run game, despite losing Jordan Howard,, as Diamont is a dual threat and 1,000 rusher Devine Redding is returning. This game is critical every season and Rutgers will have two weeks to prepare for this one.
Nov 12th: At Michigan State 12-2; 13th
The Spartans have established themselves as one of the best programs in all of college football. Quarterback Connor Cook will be gone, but head coach Mark D'Antonio has successfully overcome personnel losses every year. The defense missed former coordinator Pat Narduzzi early on in 2015, but they got better as the season wore on, leading to a Big Ten championship. It will be a cold one in East Lansing when Rutgers visits this season.
Nov 19th: Penn State 7-6; 31st
This match-up is always special, but being at the end of the season for the first time in three seasons, it will be more meaningful for both sides. Head coach James Franklin has led Penn State to back to back 7-6 seasons, so he has a lot riding on the 2016 season. Rutgers will hopefully be fighting for a bowl bid when this game comes around. And even if they are not, this will be a golden opportunity to finally take down their "unrivaled" rival, at home, nonetheless.
Nov 26th: At Maryland 3-9; 65th
The battle of former defensive coordinators from Ohio State and Michigan appropriately battle on the same day as that great rivalry takes place. Maryland and Rutgers have played two wild games so far and are on their way to a legitimate rivalry of their own. There will be a ton of comparing done with these programs all season, as both new coaches look to turn their respective programs around.
What a brutal first half to the season, taking on a rising Pac-12 team and a Mountain West bowl team BEFORE starting the Big Ten season against three of the four best conference teams from 2015. The good news is the last six games, while not easy, are more manageable and presents an opportunity to become bowl eligible.
Rutgers drops Wisconsin and Nebraska as the crossover games with the B1G West and will play Iowa, Illinois and Minnesota. Iowa had a tremendous season and is essentially an even trade with taking Wisconsin off the schedule. Although Nebraska had a disappointing season at 6-7, they finished strong and also won 9 game the year before when Rutgers played them. I would rank them above Minnesota and Illinois, though neither game will be easy.
The conference home schedule is appealing, with Iowa, Michigan and Penn State as the highlights, in addition to Illinois and Indiana. It won't be an easy slate by any means, but a winning record is possible. Playing at Ohio State and Michigan State is daunting, but road games at Minnesota and Maryland are less so. Overall, it's a tough slate, but that will be case every season! By the way, in case you are wondering about the West crossover games in 2017, we play at Nebraska and Illinois while hosting Purdue.
My favorite part of the schedule is ending the season with Penn State and Maryland. I think it should be that way every season, but this is the only season through 2019 that it falls that way. However, every game with Penn State for the next four years is scheduled in November, so that is something to look forward to.
Overall, Rutgers will play nine opponents that went to a bowl game in 2015. Their eleven FBS opponents had an average S&P+ ranking of 40th. However, if you take New Mexico out of that average, their Big Ten opponents plus Washington had an average S&P+ ranking of 33.5. Their nine conference opponents had a combined 73-44 record in 2015. It will not be an easy road at all for new coach Chris Ash and his staff. Such is life in the Big Ten East, but with a new vision for the program with Ash at the helm, it should be an exciting season on the banks!! Only about seven months until training camp begins!!