While we are not even half-way through the football season, Rutgers football is very much in a time of transition. In reflecting on how the program got to its current state, here are some interesting findings, using data from www.collegefootballdata.com and their visualization tools. A lot of the data included is from Bill Connelly’s S&P+ rating system, which uses power-rankings to compare college football programs and is similar to KenPom. For example, here is Rutgers overall S&P+ rating over the years, which provides a good macro-view of the program highs and lows.
#1: ISO PPP: Rutgers vs Penn State
What is it? This is a measure of “explosiveness” on offense by year – basically, how often does a team create big plays? More can be read here. The red line represents Rutgers and the blue represents Penn State. The higher up, the more explosive your offense was in that particular year.
What does it say about Rutgers? I was amazed to see that Rutgers actually had a more explosive offense than Penn State for about a decade (as measured by ISO PPP). But two huge changes occur: #1, Rutgers goes from being an above average team to four consecutive years of being near the bottom in FBS during the Chris Ash era. There is no sense in harping on the many well-documented struggles of the offense, but this paints a clear picture of WHY Rutgers struggled to score points. Besides Pacheco’s 80 yard run against Michigan, it’s hard to remember big plays that seemed to happen much more often in the past (the Leonard Leap in 2005, Tim Brown’s game winning TD in 2009, or Gary Nova to Leonte Carroo to start the 2014 season). So why is Penn State on here? Well, that two year peak in 2016 and 2017 was when Joe Moorhead was an offensive coordinator. More on that below…
Where do we go from here? – Explosive plays happen with dynamic athletes and dynamic play-calling and unfortunately Rutgers has lacked in both areas during the Ash Era. However, we already saw in Nunzio’s first week as a play-caller, he dialed up a double-reverse flea flicker, which resulted in Rutgers’ largest gain of the day and led to their only touchdown in three Big Ten games (gulp). Perhaps he can turn this trend around and create more big plays through his playcalling.
There has been a lot of discussion about Joe Moorhead as a candidate and I’ve been surprised by how many people said he wouldn’t be at the top of their list. His offense puts players in a position to make big plays. If Rutgers doesn’t land him, let it be because he declined, not because they didn’t try. However, if it’s not Moorhead, the new candidate needs to be someone who can recruit dynamic players and implement a dynamic offensive system (whether their own, or through empowering a top offensive coordinator).
#2: 2018 S&P+ vs Recruiting Ranking
What is it? This is from the 2018 season, looking at the correlation between team power rating (as measured by S&P+) and recruiting (as measured by a four-year talent composite ranking, via 247). Power rating is the X-axis and Recruiting is the Y-axis.
The further right you are, the better you were as a team, and the higher up you are, the better the talent on your roster was according to recruiting rankings. It’s no surprise that Alabama is in the top-right and our friends at UConn are near the bottom-left. Another way to analyze this is that any team that is an outlier to the top-left of the regression line underperformed, relative to talent. Teams like Florida State and USC stand out – they were widely regarded as underachieving in 2018. On the other hand, mid-majors like Appalachian State, Utah State, and Fresno State all appear as positive outliers (outperforming their talent level). Two of those three (Matt Wells, who was hired at Texas Tech from Utah State and Scott Satterfield, who was hired at Louisville from Appalachian State) earned P5 jobs from their success. Lastly, as an aside: for anyone in the camp of “recruiting ratings don’t matter” – they absolutely do. The correlation between recruiting ratings and outcomes is pretty strong.
What does it say about Rutgers? It says we underachieved relative to our talent level in 2018. Rutgers’ “talent” (recruiting) is on par with teams like Illinois, Indiana, Syracuse, and BC. However, for all of Chris Ash’s talk of being a “developmental program”, we were only slightly better than Oregon State when looking at teams with similar talent. UCF turned out an undefeated season with a similar talent profile and the gap between Rutgers and Wisconsin and Iowa from a talent-level should be pretty negligible.
Where do we go from here? – If you are a coach thinking of taking the Rutgers job, this should be a sign that a turnaround is possible with the right leadership. The talent on this roster is not as poor as the on-field performance would lead you to believe. From a recruiting perspective, there is still room to grow. It’s also worth pointing out how a few potential coaches appear on here. Army (Jeff Monken), Buffalo (Lance Leipold) and even Eastern Michigan (Chris Creighton) are all clustered together as teams that had near-low talent levels, but had what would be considered “average” FBS teams. That is a positive sign that they can get the most out of their players. Interestingly, Mississippi State also appears to have outperformed their recruiting ranking. In another nod to Joe Moorhead, I think people are not giving their 8-5 season last year its fair shake – they were better than their record and were working with a roster more similar to Michigan State than Michigan.
#3: Team S&P+ Trends: Rutgers vs Alabama
What is it? This looks at yearly Rutgers’ S&P+ Rating from 1970-Current (Red) as well as Alabama’s (Maroon).
What does it say about Rutgers? Obviously, of all the peaks and valleys, that 2006 season takes the cake of the last 40+ years. It was interesting to see the direct impact of hiring Schiano, via that consistent trend up from 2001 - 2007. You may be wondering why I included Alabama on here as a comparison. Alabama has been a better football program for nearly all of the 150 years since we played that first game and that’s not going to change any time soon. However, for two years (2006 and 2007), Rutgers would have been favored on a neutral field against Alabama and it puts into perspective where the program stood at that point. In addition, Alabama hired Nick Saban in 2007, there is a clear jump that takes the program from a very good team to the dynasty they are today. Even for a program as storied as Alabama, the right coaching hire can elevate a program to new heights and shows the importance for any program to make the right hire.
Where do we go from here? – Before writing this, I was firmly in the “hire Greg Schiano” section of the fanbase. He would still be my #1A/1B candidate (along with Moorhead, who I don’t see as realistic). The expectation of this new coaching hire should be a steady upward climb and few coaches in the country have improved a program as much as Greg did. The 2001 Rutgers team had a rating of -16.1 and the 2006 team had a rating of 14.8, meaning 2006 Rutgers would be favored by 31 points against 2001 Rutgers. That monumental improvement cannot be understated. (Side note: using similar logic and KenPom data, Steve Pikiell’s 2018-2019 basketball team would be favored by 19 points against Eddie Jordan’s 2015-2016 team).
However, the Scarlet-colored Schiano glasses are wearing off just slightly for me. I was surprised at just how average the 9-4 teams in 2012 and 2013 were considered, according to S&P+. Again, I am not using the ratings as the end-all gospel of how good a team is or was, but it does put a little perspective in place as many have debated how good the teams really were, given the Big East schedule. With that said, I think what’s most important is that from 2005 - 2012, Rutgers was better than they are now and better than they were before.
Bonus: Army vs Tulane S&P+ Ratings
I was using year-over-year S&P+ rankings to look at trends of potential coaching hires. A good coach is one who elevates a program from one level to the next and the clearest sign of a strong coach is one who has a clear upward trend.
Jeff Monken has by-far the best trendline of improvement of the candidates mentioned (although I am even more firmly in the camp of not wanting a triple-option team). I was very unimpressed with Lance Leipold and Jason Candle’s trends. Jason Candle’s Toledo team is actually trending downward for the third straight year. A team trending phenomenally is Willie Fritz’ Tulane team (since he was hired in 2015), who just scored 40+ points on the road against Army last week. It’s also strange just how similar the trendlines for Army and Tulane are. Regardless, I am surprised by the lack of mentions of Fritz as a candidate and think he should get a hard look, should Rutgers go the route of a G5 head coach. I encourage anyone reading this to try navigating the site yourself and see what interesting nuggets you can find.