The winds are shifting towards the middle of October, as the leaves are falling and the days are getting darker earlier. Normally midway through the college football season at this stage of the calendar, Rutgers fans aren’t used to having hope at this point in Autumn.
With the Big Ten having seesawed its way towards a season opening weekend just a week before Halloween, new head coach Greg Schiano has been focused on figuring out what he has with his football team. After Monday’s announcement that Rutgers will finally release its 2020 roster on October 12 and the two-deep the following week, it’s extremely difficult to project what this team will look like when the season kicks off at Michigan State on October 24.
In addition, aside from the challenge of preparing a team that has won just three games the previous two seasons with no prior practice time since Schiano returned last December, managing a football program through the coronavirus makes this season even more unpredictable.
The jubilation and excitement that Rutgers fans had when Schiano was hired last winter after several depressing seasons has been stymied by the reality of a global pandemic. Filling SHI stadium is not an option this fall. Long term optimism remains for the program with Schiano back, but this offseason has made it difficult for fans to connect with Rutgers football.
In regard to the 2020 campaign, what should expectations really be due to the circumstances entering the first season of Schiano’s second tenure?
Even without a pandemic, it wouldn’t have been fair to expect too much in year one. Despite hiring arguably the best coaching staff in program history and adding almost a dozen transfers from power five programs, rebuilding Rutgers football in the Big Ten East was always going to be a difficult process that will take time. Preparing for a season without having spring practice, normal offseason activities and a traditional training camp before school begins will make the task this season all the more daunting. Measuring success this season should be different then too.
Without delving into topics unrelated to sports, it’s fair to process the news cycle in our country right now as a steady stream of information that can test the mental health of anyone. It sounds funny saying it after the past few seasons, but the return of Rutgers football should bring a much needed distraction and relief from the reality of daily life during this time. And if we are lucky, maybe even some happiness.
My advice is to enjoy the little things that spark hope for the future, while also those that resemble achievements of a functional college football team. Any step forward, no matter how basic or small, will be a positive development. Rutgers fans have been starved in regard to having anything to cheer about on the grid iron, so embrace the details of the journey this season to gain some level satisfaction.
Witnessing the staff developing a competent game plan. Appreciating aggressive play calling on both sides of the ball, while forgetting what a surrender punt looked like. Having to keep track of how many blocked kicks the special teams produces this season. Watching an offense that is both modern and utilizes the personnel it has to work with. Watching players show progress from last year to this one and from the first game to the last one this season. Establishing an identity as a program.
Whether Noah Vedral or Artur Sitkowski establish themselves as the clear choice to be the starting quarterback over the next three seasons remains to be seen. Debating whether Isaih Pacheco is emerging as one of the best running backs in the Big Ten would be a pleasure. Seeing multiple transfer players actually making an impact would be a welcomed development after previous years that it failed to happen. Watching newcomers show promise would add excitement for the future.
Wins or losses are always important, but I’d argue less so this season. Grading on a curve, based on the unique situation that this season has brought seems fair.
The most important thing is establishing a solid foundation and culture to build upon in the future. That was the core of Schiano’s success in building Rutgers into a winner during his first tenure and there should be confidence he can do it again.
I do think Rutgers needs to come through with at least one victory to end the dreaded Big Ten losing streak and avoid a winless campaign. Initiating a change in the perception of the program is important, both in recruiting and within the Big Ten. Anything more should be considered gravy.
Putting a legitimate scare into a blue blood program, much like Rutgers did to then no. 1 Miami in Schiano’s second season in 2002 despite only winning one game, would be a major thrill after so many blowout losses in recent years.
Who am I kidding, even the frustrating parts of the game like complaining over a certain play call or blown coverage will be welcomed after what life has been like in 2020 for us all.
Even Rutgers just taking the field and seeing Schiano on the sidelines once again will be comforting for long time fans and give hope to those who have heard tales of what it was like to have a bowl team every year.
Rutgers football is close to returning and even though we know very little about the team ahead of the season opener, it’s still an exciting development. Just keep expectations reasonable and enjoy the journey this season brings, regardless of how much success is actually achieved on the scoreboard and in the standings. As the current state of life in 2020 has reminded us, enjoy each day and appreciate any progress made, no matter how small, while clinging to the hope that better days are ahead.