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Five most important games for Rutgers football in 2021

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These matchups will be crucial to Rutgers having a successful season this fall.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Rutgers Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

With the 2021 season now just days away, Rutgers fans are even more than excited about the potential for Greg Schiano’s program as he begins his second season back in Piscataway. With this in mind, here are the five most important games on the schedule if the Scarlet Knights want to build upon the success of last season and possibly include their name in postseason football:

5. October 30th at Illinois

A running theme you will see across this article is that Rutgers has to beat the teams they are capable of beating in Big Ten play, and the October 30th game at Illinois is one of those such games.

Coming off a season where the program finished 2-6 and last in the Big Ten West division, new head coach Bret Bielema and the Fighting Illini are widely picked to finish at the bottom of the conference yet again. However, Bielema has a history of creating winning programs in the Big Ten. Bielema coached Wisconsin from 2006-2012 and won three straight Big Ten titles from 2010-2012. In addition to the coaching change, the Fighting Illini have talent to work with at quarterback including former Scarlet Knight Artur Sitkowski, who stepped in for injured starter Brandon Peters to lead the team to a win against Nebraska. Despite losing star offensive lineman Kendrick Green to the NFL, Illinois also welcomes back a veteran group of offensive linemen and a defensive line full of veteran experience.

If the Scarlet Knights want to have a chance of competing for a bowl game, this is one of the games that the program should have circled on their calendar as a must-win. Last season, Illinois defeated Rutgers on a game-winning field goal and have won four of the last five meetings, so by no means am I calling this a give-me game for Rutgers. However, taking a look at the Scarlet Knights’ Big Ten schedule, this game is by far the easiest it will get on the road. While reading articles from Illinois’ point-of-view on this matchup in Champaign, they have the same conclusion; whoever wins on October 30th gives themselves a good chance to compete for bowl play.

4. September 18th vs. Delaware

One thing that I believe will be key to the success of Rutgers this season is their ability to handle their business in the early-quarter of their schedule. The Scarlet Knights’ first three games of the season are all winnable games against non-conference opponents and serve as a great chance for the program to start off the season on a good note. That does not mean the games will be easy however, as Rutgers will welcome perhaps its stiffest non-conference opponent, Delaware, to Piscataway on September 18th.

While the Blue Hens are not a Power five team, they are vying to be one in the near future. This past spring, Delaware was crowned the champions of Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) and was a FCS semifinalist. This season, the Blue Hens are back and have the most players selected to the CAA’s preseason all-conference team. There is no doubt in my mind that Delaware will come to SHI Stadium on September 18th looking for a statement win.

The success of the Blue Hens in FCS play should serve as a reminder to the Scarlet Knights that no team should be taken lightly on their schedule, Big Ten or not. Should Rutgers walk out of non-conference play undefeated, the program will be in excellent position to qualify for bowl play. Three wins is what the program reached in conference play in 2020, three wins would be the mark Rutgers would have to reach to become bowl-eligible if it were to win their first three games.

Here are highlights from Delaware’s 34-14 win over Delaware State this past spring:

3. September 11th at Syracuse

Running with the theme of the importance of non-conference play in 2021, Rutgers’ first road game of the season comes in Week 2 when the program visits Syracuse. The September 11th game will also be the first Power Five opponent the Scarlet Knights will face in the 2021 campaign.

The Scarlet Knights’ trip to the Carrier Dome serves as another winnable non-conference game against a struggling program. Making the game more important is the fact that this will be the first game against a hostile crowd for Rutgers in nearly two years. The last time Rutgers played in front of fans on the road was a 27-6 loss on November 30, 2019 against Penn State. With a win in this game, the Scarlet Knights can inch closer to the six win mark.

As for the opponent, after finishing 1-10 in last season’s campaign, the Orange are projected to finish at the bottom of the ACC’s Atlantic Division. Articles and team previews on Syracuse consistently talk about how poor the offensive line has performed over the past couple seasons, surrendering 38 sacks in 11 games last season and 50 in 2019. That unit is set to improve this year, and leading rusher Sean Tucker returns alongside 2020 opt-outs Abdul Adams and Jarveon Howard. On defense, Syracuse has lost several players to the NFL but returns a talented linebacking duo in Mikel Jones and Geoff Cantin-Arku and a defensive line full of super-seniors. While this game may be more difficult due to its circumstances and the improvement of the Orange, it is still a game Rutgers can and should win.

One last note: I came across an article ranking the Orange’s opponents for the 2021 campaign from easiest to hardest. This article had the Scarlet Knights checked in as the second easiest game on Syracuse’s schedule, only in front of UAlbany. I beg to disagree but proves Rutgers still has work to do in order to change the perception of the program..

2. October 9th vs. Michigan State

Michigan State will get its shot at revenge against Rutgers when they face off on October 9th.

In the opening game of last season, Greg Schiano and the Scarlet Knights shocked the Spartans by forcing a season-high seven turnovers en route to a 38-27 win. To say the least, this was a significant win for Rutgers. Winning at Michigan State not only snapped the program’s 21 game losing streak in the Big Ten, but the timing of the win gave Scarlet Knights fans significant belief in Schiano’s ability to turn the ship around. As for the for Spartans, the loss was part of a frustrating 2-5 season that couldn’t have ended sooner.

Shifting our attention to this season’s matchup, the Spartans’ trip to Piscataway on October 9th is the best chance the Scarlet Knights have to pick up a win in Big Ten play. Michigan State is picked to finish last in the Big Ten East division in the preseason poll and has questions surrounding their roster. Most notably, the program has not settled on its starting quarterback for this season. Redshirt sophomore Payton Thorne and Temple transfer Anthony Russo are the two battling for the starting job, and many publications dedicated to covering Spartans football are having their own debates on who should start under center.

The questions do not stop at quarterback. Graham Couch of the Lansing State Journal points out that depth can be a major issue for Michigan State this year. For example, Couch mentions wide receiver. At wideout, the Spartans have an ultra-talented combo of Jalen Nailor and Jayden Reed, but if one of those two were to go down due to injury, the Spartans offense could be relying on several unproven and young wideouts to pick up the slack. This is the case for several positions on the program’s roster.

While some of these issues may be resolved by the time October 9th rolls around, Rutgers should see this Michigan State game as a huge opportunity to pick up a conference win. Victories in the Big Ten are hard to come by, but a win versus the Spartans would improve the Scarlet Knights’ postseason outlook tremendously.

If you need a reminder of the win at Michigan State last season, here are some highlights:

1. November 27th vs. Maryland

The season finale against Maryland will likely be the most important game for Rutgers this season. It’s impossible to predict how a season will go due to so many variables (the big one being injuries), but if fortunes turn the right way this year, this end of the year matchup against the Terrapins could be the deciding factor for if the Scarlet Knights earn a bowl bid or not.

Taking a look at the team opposite of Rutgers on November 27th, Maryland is picked to finish fifth in the Big Ten East standings in the preseason poll, just one spot ahead of the Scarlet Knights. The Terrapins are led on offense by quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa, younger brother of Miami Dolphins signal-caller Tua Tagovailoa. By all indications, the younger Tagovailoa is poised to have a breakout season, as he is the Testudo Times’ overwhelming pick for offensive MVP after a sophomore season where he threw for 1,011 yards and seven touchdowns. Rutgers was lucky to not have to face him last season. To help him, Tagovailoa is accompanied by fellow returnees at receiver Dontay Demus Jr. and Rakim Jarrett. On defense, Maryland returns notable names such as defensive back Nick Cross and defensive lineman Mosiah Nasili-Kite, both of whom were honorable mention all-Big Ten selections last season. Head coach Mike Locksley and the Terrapins also welcome 2021 five-star linebacker Terrence Lewis to the team.

Looking past the potential bowl implications on November 27th, this matchup is bound to have major implications in the conference standings. With both programs looking at roughly the same win totals this season, even if the game ends up not being relevant bowl-wise, a late-season win can propel the Scarlet Knights up the Big Ten standings and go into the offseason with momentum. A rivalry win to end the season could do wonders for the confidence of Schiano’s program ending year two. The Rutgers and Maryland rivalry goes back to 1920, with the Scarlet Knights winning the last matchup last season 27-24 in overtime.