December 26, 2014 may have been the most recent sunny day we’ve had, as Rutgers football fans. The 2014 Quick Lane Bowl, a 40-21 victory over North Carolina which wasn’t as close as the score might have indicated (remember: we shut them out in the first half) and which secured an eighth victory of our first Big Ten season, ended a streak of ten bowl games (with seven victories!) in eleven seasons.
Since then, it’s been pretty ugly over here. I know you know the statistics, so I won’t belabor them. Eleven wins in four seasons, with the capstone being a horrendous one win, eleven loss 2018 campaign where our average margin of defeat was in the somewhere around twenty points.
I’m here to write about reasons for optimism going into the 2019 football season, and what I’m about to write may lead a sensible person to label me insane. So let me be clear at the outset: is what I’m suggesting likely? No, of course not. But it’s certainly possible, and it’s August, which is a season of hope for college football fans. So let’s have some hope.
(By the way, I’m not alone in thinking this way: almost one in five who responded to On The Banks’ July poll regarding how many wins they expect for RU this season voted “Five or more.” I do think five wins is outside-chance possible, though six might be difficult – more on this later in the post).
Hobbs and his team seem to know what they’re doing
The prevailing story line at the end of last season was that Chris Ash kept his job largely because of the projected buyout that was close to $10 million if his contract was terminated. The logic went such that the buyout for keeping him around for one more season drops to the vicinity of $7.5 million, so Rutgers Athletics did the financially prudent thing (in the face of results literally screaming in the other direction, and in typical “same old Rutgers” penny-pinching fashion, which is a trope I am tiring of).
I don’t know that I buy this logic. First, Hobbs and his athletic team have demonstrated a baseline level of competence (though, like everyone, they’ve made some mistakes) we haven’t seen around here in some time. Football is a glaring weakness in the overall scheme of things at the present time, but they’ve made solid hires in other sports, and to the extent we are seeing progress in these areas, it’s because of our athletic department’s prudent and patient hand. Second, I am positive given how upset our fan base was at the end of last season, had Hobbs really sought to fire Ash, he would have found donors willing to pony up the difference between a 2018 buyout and a 2019 buyout. Third, he not only wrote one note to fans at the end of the season explaining his decision to retain Ash, he followed it up with a second note. I don’t think he was joking around in either.
Hobbs seems like a smart guy, as far as I can tell, and he is privy to conversations with the coaching staff and circumstances surrounding the program of which you and I both (most likely) are unaware. He has to know a big part of his reputation sinks or swims with how this team performs in 2019. He elected to ride it out, and I (at least for now) elect to trust his judgment.
For Sitkowski to have had that 2018 season, he might actually turn out pretty good
I’ll refer you to the excellent, recent OTB article about Sitkowski for more detail on this, but bear with me for a second as I bring in a completely different sport. There’s an old saying in baseball (the sport has changed so it doesn’t really apply to baseball anymore) which says for you to lose twenty games in a season as a starting pitcher, you must have some talent -- because otherwise, they wouldn’t run you out there enough times to lose twenty games.
Last year’s starting QB, Art Sitkowski, had an almost-historically poor season. Again I won’t belabor the statistics, except to say four touchdowns and eighteen interceptions is, in this writer’s humble opinion, the modern college football equivalent of losing twenty games as a starting pitcher in Major League Baseball. (ASIDE: The last time this happened in baseball, by the way, was in 2003 – it was a guy who pitched for the historically bad Detroit Tigers named Mike Maroth. The Tigers got better each season after that, making the World Series three seasons later, and Maroth was a part of that team, too. College football isn’t MLB, but why can’t we show some improvement this season?)
At the time of this writing, Sitkowski is the front runner to start the 2019 season at quarterback for Rutgers. The arm strength has always been there, and from what I’ve read, he’s spent the offseason working very hard. Sophomore leaps are common – former Rutgers QB Mike Teel went for two touchdowns and ten interceptions in his first season, and improved to near-parity in TD/INT ratio for his second – and if we see the type of improvement which makes Sitkowski to the low end of the middle of the pack in terms of Big Ten starting QB’s, this alone would be significant improvement.
Incremental improvements in talent across the board could lead to gains
The general consensus among the Rutgers football fan community is Rutgers had a pretty strong offseason (relative to expectations, and really, what could have been our recruiting expectations for the offseason after 1-11?). Our recruiting class was relatively strong, and it’s not unrealistic to expect one, two, or even three true freshmen making an impact this season (particularly on special teams, a strength for Rutgers). Perhaps even more promising were our returns on the transfer portal, where we somehow held serve at almost all positions (except for the offensive line, where we lost starter Jonah Jackson to Ohio State and didn’t find a replacement). For example, I’m really excited to see our new, revamped Tight End lineup this season. I see this is an area where a mixture of transfers from other Power Five college programs and our own in-house talent might lead to production we haven’t seen in at least a few seasons.
Our schedule isn’t soft, but here’s a potential path to five wins
I think we all agree if Rutgers were to win five games this season, it’d be pretty awesome. Awesome and unexpected, to say the least. No Big Ten rigmarole is ever easy, but here’s (to me) the easiest path to winning five games this season.
First, win a game we’re expected to win (UMass) and a game where we should probably be a slight favorite (Liberty). We are currently over two touchdown favorites against UMass, and personally I’d bet on Rutgers to cover that spread heartily against one of the weaker teams in FBS. Liberty is a scarier team, having gone 6-6 last season and seemingly competently coached, but we do play them at home, so let’s work to win that one, too.
Beat Boston College in such a way that folks take notice. Though they’ll likely be favored against us, BC has its weaknesses this season, and this is another home game for Rutgers. Show up strong here, and we’re 2-1 (assuming a loss to Iowa) and there might be a few tweets from college sportswriters about how Rutgers is different this season…
Win two Big Ten games. It flat-out stinks we’re on the road to play Illinois and Indiana this season, but at least we get a weaker-than-typical Maryland team, plus Minnesota (predicted to finish 6th in the B1G west) at home. Some combination of two wins here gets us to five wins.
If you’re an absolute psycho and want to see six wins and bowl eligibility, well good luck, but you’d have to assume a significant upset over a Big Ten blue blood in addition to all the crazy sauce I just wrote above happening. Maybe Iowa, Michigan, or Penn State? I wouldn’t go there personally, but have at it…