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One stat is key to Rutgers football being in bowl contention

The Scarlet Knights are one win away from six victories because they are beating teams they should, which is reason to be hopeful for the future.

Syndication: Wilmington News Journal William Bretzger / Delaware News Journal via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Rutgers football is 5-5 as they head into the final two game of the regular season. It’s been an up and down campaign that has made this team feel unpredictable at times this fall. When diving a bit deeper, the key to this season is that the Scarlet Knights have been extremely reliable against opponents they were either better than or about even with on paper.

Four of the five losses this season have come against teams currently ranked in the Top 20 of both the AP and Coaches polls. Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State are all ranked in the top 10, with Wisconsin just ascending into the Top 20. All four teams are in the Top 20 of ESPN’s FPI rankings as well.

While Rutgers has the longest drought of beating a ranked team of all power five teams, last doing so in 2009, losing to those four opponents this season shouldn’t be surprising. While Rutgers raised expectations by giving Michigan all they could handle in the Big House was unexpected, so was the jump that the Spartans made in year two of Mel Tucker.

In deconstructing the schedule, Rutgers is 5-1 in games they had a reasonable chance to win. That is not only impressive in Greg Schiano’s second season back on the banks, but is the key to having this program make sustainable progress moving forward.

In referring to ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI), Rutgers is currently No. 71, having jumped 9 spots since Saturday’s blowout win over Indiana (2-8). They essentially switched places with the Hoosiers, who are ranked No. 80 after falling 10 spots. The Scarlet Knights also own wins over No. 69 Syracuse (5-5), No. 75 Illinois (4-6), and No. 125 Temple (3-7). Their fifth win came against Delaware (5-5), an FCS opponent.

By sweeping their non-conference schedule this season, RU doesn’t have to approach a .500 record in league play to go bowling.

Essentially Rutgers has taken care of business in games they were favored or close to a 50/50 matchup. The lone exception was the 21-7 loss to Northwestern (3-7), a team currently ranked No. 89 in the FPI. While that was the most disappointing defeat of the 2021 season so far, it’s clear that Rutgers was reeling after suffering three consecutive losses to top 10 foes. The Scarlet Knights were dealing with quite a few injuries in that game as well. It’s not an excuse for playing so poorly, but this team has shown great character in winning two of its next three games following the bye week immediately after that loss.

The reality is very rarely do teams win every game they are either favored or have an approximate 50/50 chance to win. Rutgers winning five of six of those games is extremely impressive. In doing so, they are now one win away from a bowl game. The analytical data gives Rutgers a legitimate chance to do so in large part because they play Maryland in the final week of the season. The Scarlet Knights will most likely be favored in that game as the Terps are No. 79 in the FPI and are currently giving RU a 64.9% chance to win that matchup.

While Schiano and the coaching staff will need time improve the talent and depth of the roster to level needed to challenge the best teams in the Big Ten, they have proven they can not only compete but win now against the middle to bottom tier of the conference. That is a huge step forward for a program that had a 21 game losing streak in Big Ten play before Schiano’s return.

Despite lopsided losses that can still be hard to swallow, winning games they reasonably should has brought competency and respectability back to Rutgers football. If it can continue, the Scarlet Knights should be in bowl contention year after year, regardless of how they do against the blue bloods. And that is the most encouraging statistic of all.