With two-third’s of the season complete, Rutgers now prepares for their most important game of the 2017 campaign. They are tied with Maryland in the Big Ten East with a 2-3 record in conference play. With Indiana at 0-5, it's very likely that the winner of this weekend’s game will finish in 5th place in the division. For Rutgers, after back to back last place finishes, accomplishing that feat would be verifiable proof that progress has occurred in head coach Chris Ash's second season.
Three conference wins would also equal the best season for Rutgers in Big Ten play, matching its 2014 debut.
Beating Maryland is also this team's best chance for a win the rest of this season. Football Study Hall, which uses advanced statistics like S&P+ as a way to rank teams, gives Rutgers a 51% probability of winning this game. Their next best probability to win a game this season is against Indiana at 32%, partly due to it being a road contest.
The reality is that Rutgers and Maryland will always be compared to each other. They joined the Big Ten in the same year and both current head coaches, Chris Ash and D.J. Durkin, are in their second seasons rebuilding each program.
Perception is reality and Maryland is viewed as farther along in the rebuilding progress on and off the field because they are. The Terps are 10-20 in Big Ten play midway through their fourth season, while Rutgers is just 6-24. It’s not that Maryland has been very successful, but it’s more due to the fact they never bottomed out like Rutgers did, aside from the one conference win in 2015. Maryland never endured the embarrassment of the scandals Rutgers had under former head coach Kyle Flood and are battling for their fourth bowl appearance in five years.
In terms of recruiting, Maryland’s 2018 class is currently ranked 4th in the Big Ten and 20th nationally, per 247 composite rankings. Rutgers is currently 13th in the Big Ten and 58th nationally. Regarding conference recruiting rankings from last year’s class, Maryland was 4th and Rutgers was 9th.
After splitting a pair of wild, comeback victories in their first two meetings as Big Ten members, Maryland won easily last season and clinched a bowl bid in doing so, while Rutgers hasn't been bowling since 2014. Maryland went 6-7 in Durkin’s debut campaign, while Ash went 2-10 last season. It doesn’t matter what the state of both programs were when they took them over, it just matters that Maryland has done better on the field and in recruiting.
Winning this game for Rutgers would help close the gap in both reality and perception. Both programs compete against each other on the recruiting trail and a victory would certainly help Ash with the current class and beyond. On the field, the teams would be even in head to head conference play at two wins apiece and Rutgers would have a very good chance of finishing ahead of Maryland in the East standings this season.
On the flip side, if Rutgers loses, the gap would widen between the two programs. Maryland would have a 3-1 edge on the field and hold a tiebreaker for 5th place if the two teams finished with the same conference record. That would mean Rutgers would have to beat Indiana and either Penn State and Michigan State to finish ahead of Maryland, which is unlikely. Rutgers has never finished ahead of Maryland in the Big Ten standings, so that obviously needs to change in order to show progress and lessen the gap between the two programs.
In addition, a third consecutive last place finish would still be on the table for Rutgers with a loss against the Terps. While Maryland has a brutal schedule to finish the season with games against Michigan, Michigan State, and Penn State remaining, Indiana could potentially end its season on a three game winning streak. After playing Wisconsin this weekend, Indiana will play Illinois, Rutgers, and Purdue to finish the season. If Rutgers beats Maryland, Indiana would have to win all three to surpass Rutgers in the standings via head to head tiebreaker. If Rutgers loses this weekend, all Indiana has to do is beat Illinois and Rutgers to likely finish ahead of the Scarlet Knights by season’s end. Rutgers has only finished ahead of Indiana in the standings in the East once in three seasons, despite owning a 2-1 record against them, so that would be another important feat that Ash could accomplish with three wins in conference play.
Another potential issue that would be avoided with a win over Maryland is Rutgers ending the season with five game losing streak. It’s evident to a lot of people that Rutgers is improved in Ash’s second season, but ending it with five straight losses would scratch the shine off of the progress already made this fall. A win over the Terps would also avoid failing to beat an East divisional opponent for a second straight season.
Winning would check several boxes off on the progress chart for Ash’s program, as a victory for Rutgers over Maryland on Saturday would tie the most conference wins for the program since joining the Big Ten. It would even up the series against the Terps, and it would likely put the Scarlet Knights in a position to finish in fifth place in the East this season. There would be a lot of benefits resulting from a victory against Maryland and at a minimum, secure the fact that Ash made progress in year two, regardless of how the rest of the season played out. Lose and Rutgers is potentially in line to end the season with a five game losing streak and a third consecutive last place finish in the East. If that does happen, the progress made this season would be partially muted by Rutgers still being considered the worst team in the East yet again.
You could argue that it’s progress just due to the fact that Rutgers is even playing in a game in November with real stakes on the line and a reasonable chance of winning. Heck, beat Maryland and then maybe sneaking into a bowl game with five wins would start to enter the conversation. Even if a bowl berth never gains real traction, beating Maryland ensures that Rutgers made about as much progress this season as could be fairly expected in the Big Ten, regardless of how the last three games play out. That fact makes this a huge game for Ash and the staff, who would suddenly have the program’s future outlook in a far better place than it was less than two months ago after a demoralizing defeat at the hands of Eastern Michigan. That would be undeniable progress.