While there are no guarantees and there is a reason they play the games, it’s fair to think that Rutgers will split its first two games of the 2018 season. While the home opener against Texas State is no sure thing, as no games are, especially as a Rutgers fan, a victory is likely. On the flip side, the following week, the Scarlet Knights travel to face top ten Ohio State, where victory is highly unlikely, even with the Urban Meyer ongoing investigation and the distractions that has brought. As I wrote earlier this summer, it’s important that Rutgers survive the matchup against the Buckeyes from a confidence and health standpoint. A big reason is that Chris Ash’s team enters a winnable stretch of games right afterwards and needs to be more or less in one piece entering that period of the season.
It starts with another road game the next week against arguably the worst power five team in college football, Kansas. Rutgers needs to take care of business in that game and give themselves an opportunity to build momentum, which brings us to the most critical juncture of the season.
Rutgers will return home for three consecutive home games and should be favored in at least two of them. They’ll host Buffalo on September 22nd, followed by two Big Ten opponents, Indiana and Illinois. For Rutgers to have a chance at achieving bowl eligibility with six wins in 2018, they’ll most likely need to sweep these three games.
Due to playing in the Big Ten East, there is simply no margin for error for Rutgers when it comes to winnable home games. The last four contests of the season are brutal, as November includes a trip to Wisconsin, home games against Michigan and Penn State, followed by the regular season finale at Michigan State. That puts greater importance on the first half of the season from a potential wins standpoint, which culminates with the three game home stand.
The first game game is against Buffalo, who should not be overlooked and are more than capable of winning at Rutgers like fellow MAC foe Eastern Michigan did a season ago. The visiting Bulls, who went 6-6 last season, return their three best players. They feature Tyree Jackson on offense, who was one of 26 quarterbacks named to the Davey O’Brien preseason watchlist. In just 8 games last season, as he missed time with an injury, Jackson threw for over 2,000 yards and 12 touchdowns, as well as just 3 interceptions. Receiver Anthony Johnson was named to the Maxwell Award watchlist, which is the honor given out for the best college football player in the country. Last season, Johnson produced 76 catches for 1,356 yards, including a school record 14 touchdowns. He was second in the nation in receiving yards per game (113) and third in receiving touchdowns. On defense, a unit that gave up less than 25 points a game last season and returns six starters, Buffalo is led by linebacker Khalil Hodge. He has produced the most tackles in college football the past two seasons (277 combined) and was included on both the Bednarik and Butkus award watchlists, given to the best defensive player and linebacker each season, respectively. Simply put, this could be Buffalo’s best team in years and possibly ever, as a 10 win season is a possibility.
The last three Big Ten opponents that Buffalo has faced, they’ve proven to be a tough out. They lost at Ohio State 40-20 in 2013, at Penn State 27-14 in 2015, and at Minnesota 17-7 last season. Expect Buffalo to come to Piscataway with something to prove and give Rutgers their best shot. It won’t be an easy game by any stretch of the imagination, especially for the Scarlet Knights coming off of back to back road games.
Indiana has split four meetings with Rutgers since the Scarlet Knights joined the Big Ten, with the Hoosiers winning the last two seasons, including a 41-0 laugher in 2017. The loss last season in Bloomington was a total embarrassment and the type of performance Chris Ash simply can’t have moving forward in his tenure. For Rutgers to make legitimate headway in the Big Ten East standings, beating Indiana consistently is a must. The Hoosiers return the least amount of production overall of any Big Ten team this season and host Michigan State the week before coming to New Jersey. No Big Ten contest is ever easy, but this is a game Rutgers needs to win if progress is going to be achieved in Ash’s third campaign.
The last contest of the home stand is against Illinois, a team Rutgers beat last season and is projected as the worst team in the Big Ten again this year. This really is a must win for Rutgers if they want to even come close to six victories in 2018. Illinois is still a young team and need to find a viable solution at quarterback. They open conference play at home against Penn State and then have a bye before visiting Rutgers.
All three of these games will be a challenge, but for Rutgers establish themselves as a middle of the pack Big Ten team this season, winning all of them is a must. Buffalo will likely be the highest ranked non-conference opponent they face, while Indiana and Illinois represent the best chances for Big Ten victories. Losing to any of them and Ash will run the risk of failing to improve on last season’s 4-8 campaign, or even worse, experiencing a dreaded step back season record wise, which would be a near death blow recruiting wise.
Being more competitive against the Big Ten elite is important this season for perception and for the sake of tangible progress. However, at the end of the day, every program and head coach are judged by wins and losses. Rutgers has a huge opportunity to start the season at 5-1, which would make them a legitimate story in the Big Ten. It would help with recruiting and show that progress is occurring in Ash’s third season. For Rutgers to have a legitimate chance at a bowl game this season, they realistically need to head into mid-October at 5-1 before facing Maryland and Northwestern, both of which will be a step up competition wise compared to the opponents faced during the three game home stand. If they don’t, it makes the possibility of achieving six wins much more difficult.
While the program can still take a step forward with a 5-7 record and being more competitive against the best of the Big Ten, winning at least three conference games for a second consecutive season and achieving at least a 6-6 record would mark an undeniable step forward. In Ash’s first two seasons on the banks, Rutgers lost games at home that they had a chance to win as late as the fourth quarter against Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, and Eastern Michigan. That fact, in addition to everything else on the line this season, makes the three game home stand beginning in late September crucial for Rutgers to achieve real progress in 2018.