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Football’s Gator Bowl bid making Rutgers proud in more ways than one

The program’s focus on academics was a key reason the Scarlet Knights are headed to Jacksonville to play in the most prestigious bowl in school history.

2021 Big Ten Football Media Day Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

College football bowl season is big business and that’s why there are 42 postseason games despite only four teams making the actual playoffs. The NCAA has opened itself to rightful criticism for many issues over the years in lording over amateur student-athletes while creating a billion dollar industry out of collegiate athletics. With that being said, the utilization of the Academic Progress Rate (APR) as the tiebreaker in determining which 5-7 teams can earn bowl bids is a commendable bright spot. For Rutgers, it’s the reason they are able to even attempt a massive undertaking in playing in the Gator Bowl on New Year’s Eve almost three weeks after their season ending banquet took place.

“Going through the protocol of the NCAA, running through the list of teams that were 5-7 and had the highest APR rankings, it was a process that certainly the NCAA facilitated for us,’’ Gator Bowl president Greg McGarity said on a media call last Thursday. “We had a lot of teams reach out to us. We could not invite anyone — we did not have the right to invite anyone — because the NCAA was going to determine that. But once Rutgers, which was at the top of the list, said they were interested, we were able to huddle and here we are with Rutgers.’’

Power five 5-7 teams that the Scarlet Knights finished ahead of to qualify for the Gator Bowl include Syracuse and Illinois, both of whom RU beat this past season, as well as Texas, TCU, Florida State, and Cal.

Division I presidents and chancellors developed the APR almost two decades ago and it has evolved into measuring the Graduation Success Rate of athletic programs over a rolling four-year period.

Many people deserve credit for the program being in the position that they were in to be able to accept an improbable invitation to the Gator Bowl. Most notably, of course, is the student-athletes themselves. The academic advisors and support staff deserve credit as well, led by Scott Walker, the Executive Director of Academic Services who has been at Rutgers since Schiano’s first tenure. However, one person that Rutgers fan probably never expected to thank for anything more than two years following his firing is former head coach Chris Ash.

The multiyear APR score of 979 for Rutgers that help earned them the bowl berth following Texas A&M withdrawing due to COVID-19 issues was achieved during all four seasons of Ash’s tenure on the banks. The NCAA suspended the use of APR scores for a second consecutive year due to COVID-19, so the current set of APR scores that were included as the tiebreaker range from 2015-2016 academic year through the 2018-2019 school year. Ash led the program during that entire period other than the fall semester of 2015 when former head coach Kyle Flood was in charge and RU had its lowest APR score in program history.

“Chris Ash did an excellent job,” said current Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano when discussing the APR scores as part of the bowl selection process.

Scarlet Knight fans know well that it was Schiano who not only turned the program into a winner on the field during his first tenure, but also made academic success a priority. Rutgers finished in the top 10% of all FBS/Division I programs with APR scores in Schiano’s last five seasons including No. 1 and No. 2 in his last two campaigns.

“That was always something that was very important because of what it represents,” said Schiano last week. “That’s success in the classroom and as student-athletes, the student part comes first.

Schiano making academics a priority was prioritized once again under Ash and is certain to remain that way for the long term.

“It’s been more of a Rutgers identity within the football program in that’s how things are going to be run,” explained Schiano. “I’m glad that’s where we are. It’s nice to have it as a tiebreaker, but more importantly it’s about the academic success of our student-athletes.”

“It’s one the things our new President Jonathan Holloway has stressed is academics is going to be first,” said athletic director Pat Hobbs. “Greg set the standard (in his first tenure) and we’ve seen that across all of our programs. I know our President is really proud. This is what the NCAA is about. In instances like this, they reward those schools that do put academics first. I think that is something to be celebrated as well.”

For Rutgers fans, earning the program’s first bowl bid in seven years is plenty of reason to celebrate. Knowing academics played an important role makes every person associated with the program and those who have long supported the football team that much prouder.