The new reality we are living in due to COVID-19 became clearer for some of Rutgers’ athletic teams on Thursday, as the Big Ten announced a conference only schedule for fall sports IF they do actually take place at all. The conference cited the final decision to play at all will be based on “medical advice.” There is no doubt the global pandemic isn’t going away anytime soon in the United States after over 60,000 cases were confirmed in just one day earlier this week. There is now a real possibility that college sports won’t take place at all during the upcoming academic school year. However, if they do and hopefully that is the case in some form, the fall sport seasons will certainly be much different.
With that being said, let’s take an optimistic view that the fall sports will indeed play a Big Ten only schedule, whether that’s during the traditional autumn months or perhaps even in the spring of 2021. Regardless of when it does actually take place, let’s look at the potential positive or negative impact a conference only schedule could have on each Rutgers program that is affected as of now.
For a program that currently holds the second longest losing streak in Big Ten history at 21 straight defeats, it’s obviously not good news. Add in the fact the team hasn’t even had one practice since Greg Schiano returned as head coach last December, it certainly doesn’t help that the first three games scheduled against non-conference competition is no longer happening. With all due respect to Monmouth, who advanced to the second round of the FCS playoffs last season, whoever Rutgers faces now to open the season will be far more daunting.
While Rutgers is scheduled as of now to open Big Ten play at Ohio State on September 26, Thursday’s announcement gave the impression the scheduled dates could be potentially switched around. If it does stick, what a interesting debut it would be for Schiano in his second stint at RU, facing the team he was most recently at as defensive coordinator for three seasons. If it is indeed the first game of the season, the outcome could be ugly once again against the Buckeyes.
Regardless of when Rutgers plays Big Ten opponents, we know right now they’ll be underdogs in every game. According to SportsBettingDime.com, Rutgers has an adjusted over/under win total of 1.0 game this coming season.
We know the six Big Ten East opponents will be a difficult task and the West crossover games scheduled so far are at Purdue with home games against Nebraska and Illinois. With the expectation that a tenth game will be added, Rutgers is assuredly going to be handed another road game after already having five home games on the docket. At Northwestern, while not easy, is far more desirable than at Wisconsin, Minnesota or Iowa.
The best opportunities to win a Big Ten game this season is most likely at home against the Illini and Indiana. Mind you, both teams went to a bowl game last season, so best opportunity is a relative term against a powerhouse schedule. The fact is if Rutgers does play football this season, whenever that may be, it’s unlikely to include much joy in Greg Schiano’s return. I do expect the team to be improved, especially due to the coaching staff and transfers added, but how much practice time they’ll have and which newcomers are eligible to play right away remains to be seen.
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For the non-revenue sports, what the conference only schedule ultimately looks like is a lot more tricky. For men’s soccer, there are only nine conference teams, so how many games are actually scheduled remains to be seen. None of Rutgers’ fall sports announced schedules previously aside from football, but head coach Jim McElderry said in our interview with him this spring that Princeton and Syracuse were back on his team’s schedule. The program has a long history with both schools, which would have made for fun and challenging non-conference games mixed in with a slew of home contests. That won’t happen now.
With an improved roster entering his second year on the job that includes a high profile transfer in Ritchie Barry, the task will be that much more difficult for McElderry and his staff. The Big Ten is a strong conference nationally and Rutgers has gone just 3-26-3 the past four seasons, including 1-6-1 in McElderry’s debut campaign. While optimism should remain long term for the program under McElderry, this season is unlikely to bring much of a step forward on the pitch.
Head coach Mike O’Neill has helped lead his program to eight consecutive NCAA Tournament berths, including the first three as an assistant, and back to back second place regular season finishes in the Big Ten. They are unequivocally the most consistent performer across Rutgers Athletics. However, after going 0-4 in postseason play the previous two seasons, the pressure was on this program to have a big year.
Two-time All-American Amirah Ali, as well as All-Big Ten selections Nneka Moneme and Meagan McClelland are set to lead a talented but young team. However, with several sophomores having played key roles in their debut seasons and the 8th ranked recruiting class in the nation joining as freshman, Rutgers has a legitimate shot to win the Big Ten regular season title.
The Scarlet Knights traditionally play a tough non-conference schedule to get ready for Big Ten play, so not having that benefit this season will be an adjustment for the team. With nationally ranked programs like Wisconsin, perennial power Penn State and Michigan expected to be strong once again, the margin for error remains small. Whichever of the top teams can gel faster and establish it’s identity sooner will have the upper hand. Perhaps the schedule will consist of 13 games against every other Big Ten member, but nothing has been announced yet. Regardless, the women’s soccer team remains the best chance for a Rutgers program to finally win a conference championship in the year ahead.
After two consecutive seasons of being nationally ranked and just falling short of a second straight NCAA Tournament berth after previously ending a 32 year drought, head coach Meredith Civico has this team set to be very competitive once again. While last season’s leading scorer Austyn Cuneo is gone due to graduation, both First Team All-Big Ten selections return in Katie Larmour (second in goals and points) and goalkeeper Gianna Glatz. Other key contributors returning include Kerrie Burns, Tayla Parkes and Milena Redlingshoefer, who combined for 26 points last season.
Also known for playing a very difficult non-conference schedule, the field hockey team will be thrown into the fire in the toughest conference in the country. With just nine Big Ten teams playing the sport, how many games will be scheduled is yet to be announced.
While they registered a program best four conference wins since joining the Big Ten the past two seasons (8-8 total), they finished in fifth and sixth place respectively. That’s solid in the such a strong conference, but also demonstrates how much harder a Big Ten only schedule will be. It won’t be easy sledding at all for the Scarlet Knights, but they are an experienced team that has gone a combined 9-13 against ranked foes the past two seasons. Hopefully, they can make a jump into the top four of the Big Ten this season.
Former Atlantic 10 coach of the year Caitlin Schweihofer will not have an easy first season on the banks. While that was expected with the daunting task of turning around the worst program in the best conference in the country, it’s even harder without any non-conference games on the schedule. Rutgers is just 3-117 in six seasons in the Big Ten and despite winning two of those last season with a roster that includes some intriguing young talent led by Anastasiia Maksimova, the reality is it will take a long time before significant improvement occurs. Schweihofer seems like a good hire based on her previous success in building programs and it’s a shame her first season will be even more challenging now. However, it seems of all the fall sports that volleyball is the most likely to be completely cancelled due to it being an indoor sport amid COVID-19. We will see.
Men’s & Women’s Cross Country
The Big Ten has the most questions to answer from a scheduling perspective with cross country, as the only conference only meet that typically takes place is the Big Ten Championship. The Rutgers men’s and women’s teams did compete in the Ohio State Invitational last year. Five of the eight men’s teams running were from the Big Ten and seven of the twelve women’s teams were as well, so perhaps that will occur again with an expanded field from the conference. However, how the conference plans to schedule the fall season is a huge question. Perhaps they’ll only have the Big Ten Championships, but we’ll have to wait and see. Men’s Team MVP Scott Walsh (also most improved) returns for his senior season in addition to Thomas Hillyer (best newcomer), while the women return Kayla Rosario (most improved) and Isabella Godish (best newcomer).