With training camp officially beginning on Monday, the 2017 Rutgers football season is finally here. The program has been universally picked to finish in last place in the Big Ten East this year, which should be no surprise to Rutgers supporters. However, year two of Chris Ash as head coach brings many reasons for optimism. An improved coaching staff, many potential high impact grad transfers on the roster, the best recruiting class in years has arrived, a big upgrade with the talent and depth at quarterback, all factor into the team entering their second year of working in the system, as well as furthers development under the strength and conditioning program.
As rebuilding any football program takes time, expectations need to be kept in check this season. Despite many of the reasons mentioned above, fans shouldn’t start expecting a guaranteed bowl trip quite yet. Many steps need to be taken for this program to prove major progress is occurring on the field. I’m fully in the camp that that many steps forward were made this offseason and we will see positive results of some kind this season. But time and patience are needed. Certain things need to be accomplished along the way up the ladder of the Big Ten power structure. That also doesn’t mean we can’t relish being excited about little things along the way.
While rebuilds are often referred to as a process, from a fan point of view, that takes all of the emotion out of it. Many Rutgers fans live and die by every step forward, as well as the many setbacks that occur along the way. Being a dedicated fan is accepting the journey and all that comes with it, the good and the bad. It’s fair to believe the right leadership is now in place to ultimately bring this team to a better place, but when tough losses occur, it’s okay to be frustrated by the defeats too. I embrace the tough losses, which I highlighted yesterday, because it only builds your character as a fan. To fully appreciate the highs, remembering the lows makes it even sweeter. That’s the essence of being a fan and make it such a bonding experience.
There is a certain joy that comes from victory after suffering for so long. That is why the 2006 season was so special for long time Rutgers fans, because the previous two plus decades involved so much losing. Sports Illustrated ran a cover story just a few years prior, on whether Rutgers should even still play Division I-A football (now FBS) anymore. 2006 vindicated the program and was the equivalent of a revolution won for Rutgers fans.
If you pay attention to the national media and most outsiders these days, you would think Rutgers is back in the depths of college football hell . I wrote earlier this summer that is about time to embrace the hate from some Big Ten fans. Those who follow Rutgers closely see the obvious progress under Ash and athletic director Pat Hobbs. Even so, it’s okay to expect ups and downs as the rebuild continues.
As many reasons as there are for optimism this season, there are reasons to be cautious as well. There is no question that the front line talent on offense is significantly better than last season. However, you have to weigh obvious concerns with key players staying healthy and the depth of the roster on the second and third teams needing to show improvement. Will the offensive line gel as a unit and provide the talent at the skill positions time to make plays? Will the inexperience at linebacker last season serve as a benefit this year? There are more questions that need to be answered. It’s important to stay level in hoping for the best, but at the same time, being patient and realistic. In the moment excitement, along with big picture realism.
My point is there should only be one hope for fans in 2017, which is having their pride fully restored in Rutgers football again on the field. It’s been a difficult two seasons for the fan base, and it would be a gift to just be proud of the team that competes this year, regardless of record. I was proud of last season’s team for how they represented the school as men, but the lack of results and painful blowouts made it hard to really feel good about the program in the moment. Getting ridiculed by Big Ten fans everywhere with no true rebuttal is no joy ride.
Of course, winning more games and being more competitive against the Big Ten elite would be a major step in feeling good about the program again. But it’s also about enjoying progress in the little things. Seeing improvement in certain players, as well as all three units would be fun to see.
Relishing better play calling on offense and better utilization of the talent the coaches have to work with. Watching special teams pin the opponent deep in their own field, giving the defense an opportunity to give the offense the ball back with good field position. Those are the types of moments we’ve rarely witnessed, but are the kind that builds optimism.
Having moments to be truly excited during a Rutgers football game. Enjoying a few positive plays that build momentum and give hope during a game. Watching a game and actually believing Rutgers can win it. These are steps that must occur along the way, in order for better days to ultimately become a reality.
Having tangible reasons in getting excited about Rutgers football, in addition to the undying loyalty many of us have for the program, is what I hope for. Having that week lead up in dreaming that good things will happen is gold for any fan. Restoring hope and belief is what 2017 should be about.
There should be no doubt that Ash has made many positive steps forward in restoring pride within the program. The processes and accountability in place under his leadership should be obvious for fans. This season is about seeing the fruits of that labor start to ripen on the field. But remember, gardens take time to fully develop their best results. Expecting a turnaround similar to the 2014 season, when almost everything went right for Rutgers on the field, is simply unrealistic. However, being proud of whatever progress this team produces this season will taste much better than what we digested the past two seasons.
There are legitimate reasons to believe that will happen in 2017. Enjoy the journey that will be written with the chapter of the 2017 campaign. Relish moments, big and small, when you can be truly excited about Rutgers football again. Whether that’s a conference win, or even just giving a blue blood a scare for even a quarter. If this team delivers enough moments that fans can be truly proud of, than that progress, regardless of record, will make it a successful season.