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Predicting Rutgers Football’s Future: There’s Still Cause for Optimism

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After three consecutive losses to teams currently ranked by AP in the top ten, the schedule opens up for Rutgers football in the weeks ahead.

Michigan State v Rutgers Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

As I was walking out of SHI Stadium after Saturday’s loss to Michigan State, I listened more than I talked. I do this most of the time anyway, because it actually hurts me to scream that much on defensive third down plays at my advancing age, but I listened especially closely this time because I was curious to hear how negative people were talking around me. I’d of course expect some negativity after a game where RU was expected to play close, but didn’t. But from what I heard (without getting into specifics), you’d think Rutgers was 0-6 again.

I write these articles with an analytical bent, but here are some facts that I think have more to do with human psychology and the AP Poll vs. anything else:

  • Rutgers is 3-3 after six games, which — unless you really got ahead of yourself after that Michigan game — is either the same as, or better than, you would have hoped for at the beginning of the season. If you revisit our preseason predictions, only one contributor expected Rutgers to win more than six games this season, and most of us predicted five or fewer. We aren’t football geniuses, but there are enough of us who think about Rutgers football to read a pattern into this.
  • Michigan, Michigan State, and especially Ohio State, are really good football teams. As Aaron and others point out on this site all the time, these are not the teams to compare Rutgers toward as a measuring stick of progress. Can you hope to play tough against these teams? Of course, but hope is not a strategy, and when it doesn’t work out, there’s no reason to get so negative.
  • Rutgers plays Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State at a significant speed, size, and depth disadvantage. I’m not sure any Rutgers player experienced a notable injury over the first three games of the season; that has changed after the last three games versus stiffer competition.

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But there’s still cause for optimism. We’re at the point in the season where the two ESPN models I build this analysis from, SP+ (paywall link) and FPI (link) are roughly equally forward-facing in their analysis of a football team. (Earlier in the year, SP+ was using too much 2020 data for my liking.)

SP+ now thinks of Rutgers as a bottom tier Big Ten team, with the following efficiency ratings:

  • Overall efficiency: 67th of 130 FBS teams (in the same ballpark as Indiana, at 59th; way ahead of Illinois, who is at 95th)
  • Offensive efficiency: 89th
  • Defensive efficiency: 34th

SP+, to my knowledge, no longer publishes future projections beyond the given week (and those don’t reveal themselves until the Thursday before a game), so I’ll leave it right there for now. Do I love these numbers as a Rutgers fan? I do not. Are these telling us the sky is falling? Also no. It’s about what I’d expect after two weeks of 52-13 and 31-13 losses.

Let’s change gears and look at FPI, which (when you look closely) is telling a more optimistic story. Here’s where FPI puts Rutgers:

  • Overall efficiency: 61st of 130 FBS teams (this is actually eighth in the Big Ten!!)
  • Offensive efficiency: 101st
  • Defensive efficiency: 36th
  • But wait, there’s more: The odds of Rutgers winning six+ games this season have dropped only slightly, down to 59% (still more likely than not).

When I look at this, I think — OK, SP+ and FPI pretty much agree right now about Rutgers as a football team. But, 59% chance of making it to six wins? How can that be the case? Because teams in the 60-70 range in overall efficiency aren’t what you think of typically with respect to being bowl eligible.

The answer lies in how unbalanced Rutgers’ schedule has been so far. In the first half of the season, Rutgers has played the second-toughest slate in the Big Ten (only Nebraska, who played then-#3 Oklahoma out of conference, has a tougher schedule so far), seventh-toughest in all of FBS. It’s been a true gauntlet. On the other hand, Rutgers’ remaining strength of schedule is 55th nationally, the weakest in the Big Ten.

Let’s break down the remaining schedule for Rutgers:

  • At Northwestern (Rutgers’ projected chance to win: 54%)
  • At Illinois (65%)
  • Vs. Wisconsin (41%)
  • At Indiana (37%)
  • At Penn State (13%)
  • Vs. Maryland (66%)

I would have wanted a more favorable home vs. away split, but the above is really encouraging to me. Win the two games where Rutgers is a favorite, lose everything else, and Rutgers is 5-7 (about where most people expected them to be). Win the toss-up against Northwestern in addition to those two games, and Rutgers is 6-6 and going bowling. Get lucky and win one more, and Rutgers is 7-5.

This week’s upcoming game against Northwestern is really, really important for this reason. It might very well be the most important game Rutgers football has played since 2014. We’ll all have to wait and see on injuries to important Rutgers players — to my knowledge, neither FPI or SP+ adjust for attrition in making their projections, and depth is not Rutgers’ strong suit — but think of Saturday, October 16th as an inflection point for the rest of the season. Win it, and six wins is no longer some vague possibility, it’s a very real probability.

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PS: The fact we’re even having this conversation on October 11 is awesome. It’s a testament to this coaching and support staff, in addition to the strength/guts of the players who were almost all recruited under the previous coaching staff. I don’t take this for granted, and I hope others don’t, either. With the exception of watching the actual games, which can be tough sometimes because losing hurts, watching Rutgers build itself into an interesting football program is a lot of fun. (Sometimes I get really in the details when writing these articles, but I’d be remiss not to mention this.)