The Scarlet Knights certainly have their work cut out for them in Saturday’s season opener against the University of Washington at Alaska Airlines Field in Seattle.
When RU takes the field on Saturday, they will likely find an overly confident Huskies team, who all off-season have been listening to national media and fanbase gushing about their level of talent and chances of making the college football playoff.
The AP ranks UW 14th, the first time the team has found itself in the preseason rankings since 2002 (they finished that season unranked). S&P+ projections are forecasting a 9-win season while maintaining a 15% probability of winning 11 games and a potential conference title in the PAC-12. For Saturday’s matchup, odds makers do not expect a close game, as Washington is currently a 26 point favorite. Looking again at the S&P+ projections, it puts a Huskies victory over the Scarlet Knights at a 91% probability.
The Huskies strength is on defense, which is considered an elite unit that finished their 2015 campaign as the 31st overall defense in Division I. Its run defense finished 19th and pass defense ranked 68th. A closer look using a modified version of the Fremeau Efficiency Index (FEI), which determines defensive efficiency adjusted for the strength of opponent offenses have faced, indicates to me a squad that is even stronger than basic NCAA stats show. Football Outsiders places UW second in defense efficiency (DFEI) among all Division I schools with Alabama taking the top spot. The statistic filters out first-half clock-kills and end-of-game garbage drives and scores.
While the Huskies may have lost seniors sack masters Travis Feeney (8 sacks - ranked 45th in Division I) and Cory Littleton (6 sacks), the UW coaching staff have re-stocked the team with plenty of depth. Look no further than 6-5, 332 pound defensive lineman Vita Vea (redshirt last season), who will see playing time next to defensive end Elijah Qualls.
While RU head coach Chris Ash has made it known that the spread offense will favor the run game this season, it will be an extremely challenging endeavor against a defense that yielded 125.3 yards per game against the run, which ranked second in Pac-12.
The UW pass defense is also stout, grabbing 15 interceptions last season while producing a turnover margin of +5, which ranked 34th among all Division I teams. It is all the more impressive considering the UW offense turned over the ball a lot. Examining the turnover rate, which is the percentage of opponent offensive drives that resulted in a fumble or interception, UW ranked 12th among all Division I teams. Jr defensive back Sidney Jones who led the team with four interceptions last year returns this season.
An obviate comparison: Rutgers offense ranked 76th among all Division I teams in offensive turnover rate, which is a percentage of how often the offense ended a drive because of a fumble or interception. Probability suggests RU will surrender the ball at least twice, if not more, to UW, based on last year's statistics.
On the offensive side of the ball, UW will be led by starting quarterback Jake Browning, who threw 16 TD passes, 10 interceptions, 2,955 yards, and had a 139.68 pass efficiency in 2015. He is one of four Pac-12 quarterbacks returning to their team. Browning is surrounded by solid talent in speedster wide receiver John Ross and explosive sophomore running back Myles Gaskin. Ross missed last year due to injury, but caught 17 passes for 371 yards and four TDs in 2014. His production is expected to grow astronomically this season. Gaskin ran for 1,302 yards and 14 TDs last year.
UW offense managed a subpar ranking of 85th in OFEI (Offensive FEI), a value generated per possession adjusted for the strength of opponent defenses faced. One thing the Huskies "O" managed to do well last year was to move the chains. The squad’s first down rate, which is the percentage of offensive drives that result in a touchdown or at least one first down was ranked 28th in Division I. Looking at the unit’s turnover rate, which again is the percentage of offensive drives that result in a fumble or interception, ranked 112th, a terrible ranking and obvious weakness.
To the last point, this is one area the RU defense did well last year. The Scarlet Knights managed to rank 54th among all Division I schools in turnover rate. While I’m expecting the RU offense to turn it over to the UW defense, perhaps we can see the same from the RU defense. Look for senior defensive back Anthony Cioffi, who has a nose for the ball, to make one or two big plays.
Defensively last season, the Scarlet Knights ranked 126th in available yards percentage, which is the total number of yards surrendered by the defense divided by the number of yards available to be earned based on starting field position. In contrast, UW offense ranked 63rd last year in offensive available yards percentage, which is the total number of yards earned by the offense divided by the number of yards available to be earned based on starting field position. Not a stellar number, but good enough to frustrate the RU defense.
In short, while Rutgers fields quality athletes, it probably won't be enough to overcome the talent on the UW defense. The new RU spread offense is unpredictable, as they will be showcasing it for the first time on Saturday. We know quarterback Chris Laviano is not a traditional dual threat at the position, so adjustments and tweaks are certainly part of the plan. On the other side of the ball, statistics from last season indicate RU lacks a secondary to contain some of UW's speedy wide receivers. UW will play an uptempo rhythm with plenty of dynamism that could put this game out of reach early. However, its a new season with a new coaching staff, so let's hope major progress is shown on Saturday.