We are just over two months away from the opening game of the 2019 season for Rutgers football. It’s a crucial fall for head coach Chris Ash, who enters his fourth year at the helm firmly on the hot seat. After a 1-11 campaign in 2018, it’s fair for fans to be in a wait and see mode regarding believing this team can show major improvement this coming fall.
The 2019 preseason S&P+ rankings from SB Nation have Rutgers listed 108th out of 130 FBS teams. The three major factors in determining these rankings per advanced stats guru Bill Connelly were weighted recruiting rankings from recent years, returning production, and recent history for each program. It shouldn’t be surprising that the Scarlet Knights are the lowest ranked power five team after going 7-29 the past three seasons. They sit just one spot behind Kansas, who embarrassed Rutgers last season 55-14 in a disastrous loss, so perhaps they were fortunate to not be ranked even lower.
Heading into this season, it’s doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that RU needs to win its non-conference games to have any chance at achieving major improvement from a win-loss perspective.
Rutgers has gone 4-5 in non-conference play under Chris Ash, but other than beating a 9-4 New Mexico team in his first season, Rutgers hasn’t delivered any quality wins. There were two losses to Washington, with the rematch at home in 2017 being much closer than Ash’s debut the year before. There were also embarrassing losses to MAC opponents Eastern Michigan and Buffalo, both at home, in addition to Kansas on the road. The additional wins were over two FCS teams, Howard and Morgan State, as well as Sun Belt bottom feeder Texas State.
This season’s non-conference slate is an interesting one. The season opener is a Friday night affair against UMASS and first year head coach Walt Bell. Rutgers has to win that game. Three weeks later, former Big East foe Boston College comes to Piscataway, which we will get to. Then in late October, Rutgers hosts another team with a new head coach in Liberty and Hugh Freeze. This game scares the bejeezus out of the me, especially with it being later in the season and Rutgers potentially being beat up in more ways than one once the leaves start falling. However, these theee games are also a great opportunity for this year’s team to make a statement that they have gotten better.
If Ash and Rutgers want to achieve significant progress in 2019, winning all three of these games is a must. Rutgers is currently a two touchdown favorite against UMASS and should be favored against Liberty, which makes it obvious both those games are must wins. It’s likely they won’t be favored against any other opponents all season. The wild card of the three non-conference game and the key to showing real progress is by beating Boston College.
The Eagles have won seven games in five of the last six seasons under head coach Steve Addazio, making a bowl each time. While they haven’t been able to climb the conference ladder any higher than the middle of the way up under Addazio, BC would easily be the biggest non-conference win in the Ash era and arguably the best overall as well. Beating a program that goes to bowl games every year is probably better than when Rutgers defeated a 6-6 Purdue team in Jeff Brohm’s first season at the helm. Of course, BC has to prove themselves this season, as they have experienced a lot of changes from last year. Their preseason S&P+ ranking is just 72nd.
Yes, Boston College returns starting quarterback Anthony Brown, Heisman candidate AJ Dillon in the backfield, and last season’s leading receiver in Kobay White. However, they have a new offensive coordinator in Mike Bajakian (former Tampa Bay QB coach) and have to replace four starters on the offensive line, as well as all-conference tight end Tommy Sweeney. On defense, Addazio demoted his coordinator from the past three seasons, Jim Reid, and promoted linebackers coach Bill Sheridan to the role. He’ll take over a unit that returns less than half of its starters from last season. They have a lot holes to fill along the defensive line and secondary, in particular.
If fans have any delusions of grandeur about Rutgers even having a chance to be in the mix for a bowl game, winning all three non-conference games not only gets them halfway there, a win over BC would give legitimate hope against Maryland and Minnesota at home, as well as Illinois and Indiana on the road.
Lose to Boston College, at home, and it would certainly damper hope that things will get much better in Big Ten play. Rutgers would most likely fall to 1-2 with a trip to Michigan the following weekend. Fair or not, a good amount of fans would start bracing for the wheels to soon fall off before the calendar turned to October once again. A win would be a solid step forward and put Rutgers at 2-1 before heading to Ann Arbor, which would also make the following five weeks a more compelling stretch which includes the four winnable Big Ten games I just mentioned with Liberty spliced in between.
With the majority of starters back, several intriguing transfer additions and only one ranked team likely among seven home games (Ohio State), Rutgers has a chance to make real progress in Chris Ash’s fourth season. There are plenty of questions about this team on both sides of the ball, with none bigger than at quarterback. However, the opportunity to show major improvement is there and an early season win at home over Boston College would be a major step in the right direction, as well as give the fan base something that wasn’t long lived last season......hope.