Rutgers football announced the addition of FCS school Monmouth to the 2020 schedule on Thursday afternoon. With the non-conference schedule now complete for the next three seasons, and two games scheduled for the three years after that, some significant trends are starting to emerge under the direction of head coach Chris Ash and athletic director Pat Hobbs. Here are four thoughts I have on the current non-conference scheduling philosophy of Rutgers that is starting to take shape.
Regional Games Now A Priority
As with this upcoming season’s men’s basketball schedule, the football team is starting to schedule more regional non-conference games as well. Not so much this season, as Rutgers hosts Texas State and travels to Kansas. However, they do host Buffalo, which was scheduled under Ash and Hobbs’s watch. In 2019, Liberty is in Virginia and the Scarlet Knights will play two teams from New England in UMASS and Boston College. With the addition of Monmouth to open the 2020 season, all three non-conference opponents that year are from the east coast, with a home game against Syracuse and a road contest at Temple. 2021 repeats with Syracuse and Temple with one game still to be scheduled. In 2022, Rutgers plays Boston College and Temple, while in 2023 it’s Temple and Virginia Tech, in addition to Midwest opponent, Ohio. So in the next six seasons, Rutgers is scheduled to play 13 teams from the east coast, 3 programs that are from elsewhere, with 2 more games still to be scheduled.
In comparison, in the past two seasons when Rutgers had just three non-conference games each year, the only east coast teams they played were from the FCS in Norfolk State and Howard. More regional games against power five opponents and former Big East foes is a positive development for the fans and helps make hot September games, potentially at noon, far more interesting and worth sitting through.
Slate Gradually Getting More Competitive
Within the regional focus, the non-conference schedule is also getting more competitive compared to this season and next. Playing teams like Boston College, Syracuse, Temple and Virginia Tech not only reignite old rivalries, but it makes the month of September in future seasons gives Ash’s team a chance to make more of a statement as well. While Rutgers dropped PAC-12 teams like Washington and Washington State off the table, as well as the cancelled UCLA series, Rutgers kept one power five opponent on the schedule per season. And those regional opponents are more competitive than this season’s game against Big 12’s Kansas.
Temple also makes sense from a competitive standpoint in that while Rutgers isn’t playing a second power five team, they are scheduling a solid “group of five” program. While games against the Sun Belt’s Texas State this season or independent program Liberty next season fail to get fans excited, replacing them with Temple puts more at stake from a recruiting perspective as well, another reason it’s a more compelling matchup. I see nothing but positives in this from a fans perspective. Also, ramping up the competitiveness of the non-conference schedule each year as Ash builds the program makes sense too.
Trends To Watch For With Third Games Still Available
With one game still to be scheduled in the 2021 through 2023 seasons, it will be interesting to see how Rutgers fills them out. It’s possible Monmouth is added to future seasons. I would prefer not to see too many FCS opponents on future schedules and rather see more MAC opponents, for example, which we know are no pushovers. However, at least playing Monmouth helps a local program with their own development. Pay it forward, so to speak. And again, it’s more compelling for Rutgers to play the Hawks over Norfolk State or Howard, who are a program that’s receiving votes in both FCS polls this preseason. But please, don’t make an FCS opponent an annual habit. It also raises the question that if you can play Monmouth in 2020, why didn’t playing Princeton for the 150th anniversary in 2019 happen? (Editor’s note: I discovered that because Ivy League schools don’t offer athletic scholarships, a win over Princeton doesn’t automatically count towards bowl eligibility. However, if Rutgers beat Princeton and went 6-6, it would still place them ahead of any 5-7 team, which with so many bowl games these days, would be a possible scenario. My overall thought is it’s a dumb rule and wins over FCS schools should either all count or not count.)
The reality of Rutgers playing in the Big Ten East division means that they need to be strategic in scheduling non-conference games year in and year out if the program has bowl aspirations on an annual basis. Ash and Hobbs aren’t putting together a daunting schedule in future seasons by any stretch of the imagination. However, they aren’t mailing it in either. The 2020 season is a visible upgrade from this season and next as well. Adding all east coast opponents and playing two teams in Syracuse and Temple in 2020, that are arguably better than all but one team (Boston College) on the next two non-conference schedules, for Ash’s fifth season is a positive sign. Beating programs with better name brand recognition will help with perception as well, as Rutgers looks to gain respect by climbing up the Big Ten ladder and becoming a annual bowl team once again. They need to be tested in non-conference play before facing the gauntlet in the East division, but need to survive September as well. Playing against more compelling opponents in the non-conference slate in the future than in years past is a step in the right direction.