The upcoming 2017 season for Rutgers football is all about one thing.......progress. After the past two seasons have resulted in a 50% decline in wins from each of the campaigns before it, the hope is this year will mark the beginning of the climb back up to respectability. The program won 79 games in a 10 year period, with the last season of that decade long span being an 8-5 debut campaign in the Big Ten in 2014.
I don’t need to drudge up the missteps and many issues that brought the program to it’s knees in recent years, but to say that year two of the Chris Ash era is crucial is an understatement. However, having a second offseason in the revamped strength and conditioning program under Kenny Parker, an upgraded coaching staff, capped by new offensive coordinator Jerry Kill, an infusion of talent from a good number of graduate transfers added, a more disciplined team culture, to the return of Janarion Grant, there is reason to be hopeful the team will be both more competitive and successful this season.
Another reason to be hopeful is that the schedule provides real opportunity for the program to take a step forward in 2017. After the Big Ten gave Rutgers an unpleasant welcome gift of playing Nebraska and Wisconsin as crossover opponents from the West during the first two seasons in conference, last season included top half of the conference teams in Iowa and Minnesota, as well as another rebuilding program in Illinois. However, this season brings the most manageable schedule for Rutgers with their crossover opponents from the West division. In fact, according to Tom Dienhart of the Big Ten Network, Rutgers has the easiest crossover schedule of any Big Ten school this season.
While Rutgers will take it’s second trip to Nebraska as a heavy underdog since joining the Big Ten on September 23rd, the remaining West opponents make up a critical, two game stretch in October that will likely define the 2017 season for the program.
The first five weeks of games will not be easy, as Rutgers has home contests against Washington and Ohio State. Both were playoff teams from a year ago and rightful contenders again this season. The Buckeyes could be the #1 ranked team in the country when they come to Piscataway on September 30th, which could be the reality in any season these two teams play in the future. Throw in the road trip to Nebraska and it’s likely Rutgers will have three losses before the end of September. While the two other non-conference home games will see Rutgers favored against Eastern Michigan and Morgan State, Ryan Dunleavy rightly points out here, that MAC opponent EMU is not a certain victory after coming off a bowl appearance last season. Rutgers will probably be thankful to start the month of October with a bye week after a difficult start to the 2017 season. However, what comes immediately after is a tremendous opportunity for the program to make a very clear step forward.
After the bye week, Rutgers enters a two game stretch that includes games at Illinois and Purdue on the banks for Homecoming. Both teams finished at the bottom of the Big Ten West last season and are expected to do the same again this year. Please don’t misinterpret what I am saying, as sadly, neither game should be counted on as sure victories. They aren’t by any stretch of the imagination and the reality is the fans of those teams are certainly looking at Rutgers on the schedule and hoping for a win as well. However, they are also winnable games for the Scarlet Knights and contests that will determine how much progress this team has made from the difficult to watch 2016 campaign. Athlon recently ranked all 130 FBS teams heading into the season and listed Illinois at 92nd, Rutgers at 91st and Purdue at 84th. It’s fair to call games against both schools toss ups at this point.
The two game stretch against them in mid-October can define progress in one fell swoop. While some fans have pointed to additional win possibilities later in the season against Maryland and Indiana, this team needs to prove it can win against near equal opponents like Purdue and Illinois first. Even so, it’s unrealistic to think Rutgers can win all four of those games, but even a split record of 2-2 would mark substantial progress versus last season’s 0-9 Big Ten record.
Let’s dream a little bit and say Rutgers takes care of business against Eastern Michigan and Morgan State, then follows their bye week with a payback win over Illinois and a festive Homecoming victory over Purdue. That would put Rutgers at 2-2 in the Big Ten and 4-3 overall. The positive ramifications if that became a reality would be immense. It would change the narrative of the Ash era and shine a positive light on Rutgers football for the first time since 2014. The program would get rightful buzz on the Big Ten Network. It would help with recruiting, as Ash and the staff would have tangible results to sell prospects. It would give the team a major confidence boost entering the latter portion of the season, which includes road games at Michigan and Penn State. However, playing Maryland at Yankee Stadium and at Indiana would be games they would be seemingly expected to be competitive in, if not have a reasonable chance to win after making that progress by mid-season. And even if Rutgers lost the final five games of the season, while disappointing, as long as they are more competitive against those opponents versus last season, a final record of 4-8 would have to be looked at as real progress in 2017.
Don’t kid yourself though, as wins over Illinois and Purdue wouldn’t do a lot to change the negative perception of Rutgers football from most Big Ten fan bases. However, it would immediately eliminate their taunts of being the worst program in the conference. As I wrote this weekend, the hate for Rutgers is real with some Big Ten fans and we should all embrace it. Even so, what other fan bases of the Big Ten think about Rutgers doesn’t matter. What is important is that the program we love gets better this season and makes us proud again. The rebuild of Rutgers football is going take time, but progress has to start somewhere. Winning that two game stretch in mid-October would be a real sign that it has truly begun on the field.
For a full look at the 2017 Rutgers football schedule, including confirmed times and TV listings, click here.