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Does a path towards bowl eligibility exist for Rutgers in 2021?

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Making the case for six (or seven) wins in the season ahead.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 18 Nebraska at Rutgers Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When Greg Schiano arrived for his second stint at the helm in Piscataway, expectations for the trajectory of the Rutgers football program took off in a way they hadn’t since he left — understandably.

The Wyckoff native, after all, is responsible for the golden era of the Scarlet Knights’ on-field performance. Five wins in six consecutive bowl appearances capped a renaissance that, at its height, had fans wondering how high their team would be ranked in a given AP Poll instead of wondering if voters had seen the team at all.

A pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign that saw considerable improvement in the on-field product, combined with serious momentum on the recruiting trail, will no doubt have postseason hopes debated at tailgates in early September.

As a primer for those conversations, I dove into the upcoming season schedule in search of six wins that Rutgers needs to punch their ticket to a holiday season football destination — “destination” being a relative term, given that Detroit and New York City are two of the more likely landing spots if the Knights’ pull this off.

Temple | September 2nd

For a while, it certainly looked like Matt Rhule was going to create a new Group of Five monster out of Philadelphia. An American Athletic Conference title, consecutive 10-win seasons, and a College GameDay appearance had the Owls on everyone’s radar.

Until they weren’t.

Rhule left for Baylor following the 2016 season and while the Owls haven’t been awful, their 24-22 record since his departure has no doubt brought them back to earth and, more importantly, seen their recruiting drop off considerably with class rankings of No. 104, No. 102, and No. 117 over the last three cycles.

This isn’t to degrade the Owls’ program, as many Rutgers fans would have done unspeakable things for a 52% win percentage since 2017. However, these programs are trending in completely different directions, and Coach Schiano’s group will have plenty of juice for their season opener at SHI Stadium, including what promises to be a rowdy crowd of scarlet-clad supporters. Rutgers will need to do their job, but this is a very winnable start to 2021.

at Syracuse | September 11

Ah, Syracuse. It’s great to see some of the regional, non-conference, former Big East rivalries coming back to fruition on the schedule. Gone are the days of seemingly trans-Atlantic trips to start the season, replaced with favorable matchups against programs the Scarlet Knights are directly competing with on the recruiting trail each and every year.

The Orange present with a similar trajectory as Temple, in that a recent meteoric rise (again, relative term) has been tempered with a dose of big-time college football reality. Syracuse went 10-3 in 2018, with wins over West Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida State. In a non-Clemson world, that’d be good enough to put a program square in the ACC championship discussion. Alas, Dino Babers’ success has been short-lived to this point, and he’ll find his seat getting verifiably warm if his sixth season gets off to a rocky start.

For this reason, I tend to be a little anxious about the Scarlet Knights’ trip to central New York. Dino’s squads of the past have taken down better teams than Greg Schiano will bring to the Carrier Dome in mid-September (see Syracuse-Clemson, 2017). But this isn’t a column for pessimism, and Rutgers will undoubtedly be the Orange’s best non-conference test. This would be a regional statement win for the visitors, and while I foresee a tight, back-and-forth game, Rutgers will depart ‘Cuse with its first 2-0 start since 2014.

Delaware | September 18th

There’s not a ton to read into with the Week 3 matchup from an intangible standpoint. Delaware comes in as an FCS opponent that Rutgers should beat soundly, if not dismantle, from a talent perspective. Good programs make no mistake about who is cutting the check in these pay-to-play scenarios, and it’s about time for Rutgers to resume that practice.

With that being said, Delaware won the CAA and made it to the FCS Semifinals last year, so this isn’t a Howard University opponent of years’ past. The Scarlet Knights will need to be sharp, but if they’re going to be taken seriously in the Big Ten, this game needs to be a no-doubter. It will be.

Michigan State | October 9

Sitting at 3-2 (0-2) heading into the second week of October, Rutgers welcomes Michigan State to Piscataway, with the Spartans looking for a revenge performance against Schiano’s group following last year’s surprising season-opening win in East Lansing. Mel Tucker, now with a full (albeit shortened) campaign under his belt, is beginning to find his footing on the recruiting trail. His team also made the most of their wins in 2020 — taking down both 13th-ranked Michigan and No. 8 Northwestern.

In an interesting twist, former Rutgers commit Anthony Russo, who flipped to Temple in the midst of the Kyle Flood-Chris Ash transition, is in the mix to be QB1 for the Spartans. Russo will battle Payton Thorne for the starting job this August, but I like the Rutgers defense’s opportunity to create havoc and force turnovers against this team regardless of who is under-center. The Spartans may once again rise under Tucker to be a Big Ten contender, but they’re not there yet, and after consecutive games against Michigan and Ohio State, the Scarlet Knights will be ready to pounce on a lesser opponent at SHI Stadium. Rutgers will be 4-2 at the midway point of the regular season.

at Illinois | October 30

Illinois just feels like a team Rutgers should have the ability to beat every year. Overshadowed in-state by Northwestern, the Fighting Illini don’t win a ton of big-time recruits, are not a needle-moving Big Ten program, and haven’t played a flashy brand of football in what feels like forever. They did, however, earn a trip to the Redbox Bowl in 2018 where they dropped a 35-20 decision to Cal.

Bret Bielema will be eight games into his maiden season on the sidelines for Illinois by this point, fresh off a visit to Happy Valley. I’m fascinated to see what and how Bielema does here, but it doesn’t really shake my inkling that Rutgers should, and will win this football game. Although nothing about the Chris Ash era should surprise me, I’m floored that Rutgers has lost three straight head-to-head matchups to this program. That ends to close out the month of October, and the Scarlet Knights will enter a truly consequential November for the first time in recent memory, with a real chance to punch a ticket to the postseason.

at Indiana | November 13

I know, Indiana finished last season in the AP Top 10. I also realize that Michael Penix Jr. is an electric athlete and super-effective quarterback for this team, as evidenced during a three-touchdown performance in Piscataway last fall. Tom Allen, for his part, is on the shortlist of best coaches in Hoosier football history at this point.

However, last year’s game wasn’t quite as one-sided as the 37-21 score might indicate, and I think Greg Schiano sees Indiana as a program they can “catch”, to steal a line from his re-introductory presser. By this time in the season, Rutgers will have tasted success in the form of multiple wins, and a six-win year will be within their grasp. They very well might need to have this one to make it happen. Enough intangibles for you?

Regression is the Hoosier’s biggest opponent in 2021. Recall that their stirring win over Penn State came in overtime on a controversial ruling, and they picked off Michigan and Wisconsin on down years, albeit while they remained ranked. Penix Jr., while supremely talented, is injury-prone, and hasn’t completed a full season yet at Indiana with a history of season-ending injuries, most notably two ACL tears. If that unfortunate trend continues, Indiana is a completely different team by the time this game rolls around. If Penix Jr. is available, do we think they’re really a tenth-ranked, CFP-contending team?

I don’t, and think the Knights pull a minor upset on the road in Bloomington.

BONUS: Maryland | November 27

The Terps are Rutgers’ biggest measuring stick when it comes to Big Ten ‘worthiness’ for many, making their head-to-head clashes all the more important. Given that neither have a true “rival” in the Big Ten East, it makes complete sense to continue building this one up into an annual, post-Thanksgiving tradition for mid-Atlantic college football fans to savor.

Although Maryland finds itself with a tougher 2021 slate than the Scarlet Knights, it’s certainly possible that both teams enter Week 12 needing a win to go bowling. Wouldn’t that be a storyline? For our purposes here, let’s say Rutgers drops the game at Indiana after Michael Penix Jr. throws for five touchdowns and turns in a Heisman-worthy performance against Greg Schiano’s defense.

As we’ve seen in this series over the years, Maryland and Rutgers represent two fairly evenly-matched and progressing football programs. Both appear to have hit rock bottom in terms of on-field play and are now rebounding on the recruiting trail as a result of regime changes. In terms of adding another classic chapter to Terps-Scarlet Knights, we could see Noah Vedral turn in a career-defining effort that puts Rutgers over the top, or how about Isaiah Pacheco dragging a defender or two across the goal line for a late-game, go-ahead touchdown? Expect the unexpected when it comes to Terps-Scarlet Knights.

In the grand scheme of this upcoming 2021 season, none of these scenarios are all that far-fetched. Last year, Greg Schiano showed what he and his coaching staff could put together in a COVID-19-impacted spring, summer, and fall. Now, with spring practice and (hopefully) an uninterrupted fall camp ahead of a very talented roster, Rutgers is in its best spot to play meaningful football into the month of November in seven years.

Enjoy the ride, and refer to this piece when you need optimism amidst the peaks and valleys of the season ahead.