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Predicting Rutgers Football’s Future: The End Game

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With two games left in the 2021 season, we break down the possibilities for Rutgers football as it seeks to become bowl eligible

NCAA Football: Rutgers at Indiana Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

What a long, strange season it’s been. After a 38-3 drubbing of Indiana, in a win I did not see coming and am happy to have been incorrect about in retrospect, Rutgers football now stands at a record of 5-5 with two games remaining (at Penn State, followed by Maryland at home).

By now, I’m assuming most readers know the simple math. Win just one of the next two games, and Rutgers becomes bowl-eligible. I’ve been thinking a bit about the idea of bowl eligibility for this Rutgers team, and the more I think about it, making it to even a minor bowl would be such a validation of how far this team has come in a very short time. It’s not even one of those “the upperclassmen have endured a lot of losing!” type arguments, though this is certainly true. To be real, and just thinking about the world right now, this hasn’t been a truly normal college experience for any of the Rutgers (or insert any school name here) players. Then you factor in all of the losing, the embarrassment of the Ash years, Rutgers being a meme joke, etc., and even one of those late December, mid-week bowl games would be a well-deserved bit of fun for the players and fans. And honestly, it’s just cool and fun to be having this conversation right now.

If you’re new here, this is an article about how we can use analytics to figure out what could happen over the next couple of weeks with respect to Rutgers football (if you find this sort of thing interesting). So, let’s do just that.

First, looking at ESPN’s FPI (link), Rutgers’ commanding win over Indiana puts them comfortably in the lower-middle of the Big Ten pack (10th in overall efficiency, 71st in the nation, in front of Illinois, Maryland, Indiana, and Northwestern). Here are Rutgers’ chances of winning the next two games, according to FPI:

  • At Penn State: 13% chance
  • Vs. Maryland: 65% chance

Doing some simple combinatorics will get at the following potential outcomes:

  • Rutgers wins both games (7-5 final record): 8.5% chance
  • Rutgers wins one game, loses another (6-6 final record): 61.5% chance
  • Rutgers wins neither game (5-7 final record): 30% chance

So, Rutgers has a seven in ten chance of going bowling. A poker analogy would be, Rutgers is all-in before the flop with ace-king vs. an opponent’s lower unmatched cards; the opponent has two live cards, but Rutgers would certainly be happy to be in the position they’re in rather than the opponent’s position.

A few thoughts on the numbers above:

  1. Super interesting how just one convincing win changes the entire narrative. Before the Indiana win, Rutgers was only about 25% to make it to six regular-season wins. This sounds silly to say, but you’ve got to win one game before you can win two, and Rutgers did so with an exclamation point on Saturday.
  2. HOW Rutgers won changes things, too. The win percentage for that Penn State game looks (and is) low at 13%, but before the Indiana game, it was at 9% — in relative terms, Rutgers’ chances of winning in Happy Valley went up by 50% in one week. Those differences seem small, but they inch up the upset potential little by little, which means something.
  3. At this point in the season, we know who Rutgers is. Looking at FPI’s efficiencies page (link), Rutgers has a struggling offense (ranked 102nd in FBS), a sub-elite defense (ranked 37th), and an elite special teams (ranked 4th!). What that Indiana game showed me, and all the other doubters, was when Rutgers shows up prepared, motivated, and ready to kick butt and chew bubblegum, that’s enough to win some games! Especially against teams with similar talent levels, Rutgers can win easily when they show up like they did on Saturday.

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The SP+ model (paywall link), which is a bit more elegant and tempo-focused compared with FPI, doesn’t really disagree much with FPI about Rutgers at the moment:

  • 74th in overall efficiency (vs. 71 in FPI)
  • 100th in offensive efficiency (vs. 102 in FPI)
  • 28th in defensive efficiency (vs. 37 in FPI)
  • 76th in special teams efficiency (vs. 4 in FPI, my understanding is SP+ cares more about field goal efficiency vs. FPI, explaining the difference)

Because the two models pretty much agree on what Rutgers is, let’s take a quick look at their next two opponents (a more interesting tale). I like SP+ for this because it’s a more matchup-focused (OK, more gambling-focused) model. By this I mean, every week it creates specific game predictions, which are posted publicly on Twitter and then followed up upon after each week — see below for an example from last week’s slate of games (and yes, if you look at the spreadsheet, SP+ kind of saw the Rutgers win coming, predicting a much closer game than the 7-pt spread):

SP+ provides a note of caution for the weeks ahead. It treats Penn State like a slightly less talented version of Wisconsin (it places PSU 15th overall in efficiency, just a few positions behind Wisconsin in all three phases of the game), which frankly terrifies me as a Rutgers fan having watched the Wisconsin game in person.

SP+ also really likes Maryland, at least relative to FPI, ranking them 56th in the nation at the moment (FPI has Maryland at 82, behind Rutgers). It’ll be interesting to see how SP+ treats the Maryland matchup the final week of the season, but if it were held this week, I believe the model might predict Maryland, actually, as a slight favorite.

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So on one hand, you have the optimistic FPI model giving Rutgers a 70% chance of going bowling. On the other, you have SP+ suggesting one might want to favor Rutgers’ opponents each of the next two weeks. Rationally, I’m somewhat inclined to agree with the SP+ take given what I’ve seen all season from Rutgers football, but of course this is why the games are played on the football field. If I were a betting man, I’d say Rutgers is more likely than not to win the all-important sixth game and make it to a bowl game, but probably not 70% to do so. We shall see soon enough.