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Rutgers leads Big Ten in returning production but will it be an advantage?

In a year that most teams have more than usual back and a greater potential to outperform last season, Greg Schiano made it clear what the real key will be.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 31 Indiana at Rutgers Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon College Football

Heading into the 2021 season, Rutgers football leads the Big Ten in an important statistic. The Scarlet Knights return 92% of its production from last season, which ranks 11th most nationally and is more than any other team in the Big Ten.

Let’s start with the positives. Rutgers lost very few contributors from last season with the two biggest losses from a personnel standpoint being defensive starters Michael Dwumfour and Brendon White. On the other side of the ball, the offense returns every starter from a year ago. With 20 of 22 starters back, continuity is now a strength coming off a year when there was so much change in head coach Greg Schiano’s first season back at RU.

In Tuesday’s press conference to kick off training camp, Schiano spoke about how he plans to take advantage of having so many players back in key roles this season.

“I think what it allows you to do is do what you, but do it better. You have more cumulative repetitions,” said Schiano. “I don’t think it’s necessarily more. More isn’t always better. You just have to do things better. The temptation is to do more. I’m a big believer in multiple reps, cumulative reps and getting better at something. The team you are going against, they’ve been doing the same thing. You really have to execute at a high level.”

Having had a true spring camp and now heading into a traditional training camp after having neither last year gives hope that Rutgers will show improvement in all phases of the game once again.

Schiano’s point regarding opponents also rings true even more so this season. While Rutgers has a very high number of key players returning, it’s actually far more common across the league this season. With COVID-19 shortening the season last fall and leading to an additional year of eligibility, it’s common for teams to have super seniors who stayed for an unexpected fifth season which boosts the returning production statistic.

As ESPN’s Bill Connelly points out in the tweet above, the national average of returning production over the previous seven years was 62.6%. Rutgers is way above that, but less so than what is normal this season because the national average of returning production has spiked to 76.7% per Connelly.

Five opponents for Rutgers this season are returning over 80% of its production in Maryland (85%), Wisconsin (84%), Indiana (83%), Illinois (83%) and Syracuse (82%). Two other opponents, Penn State (79%) and Michigan (78%), are above the national average as well. Michigan State (74%) and Temple (65%) aren’t far behind. Only Ohio State (51%) and Northwestern (39%) return well below the national average. The Buckeyes have reloaded as they always do, so roster turnover is less of an concern. However, it does make Northwestern interesting to watch in how they develop this season as they need to replace almost two-thirds of its production from last season. That being said, they’ve proven to be one of the more consistent winners in the Big Ten under head coach Pat Fitzgerald.

Another thing to consider is that a team’s actual production from last year could have been less than what its true potential is this season based on who is returning. With players missing time last season due to COVID-19 and minor injuries more of an issue without a traditional training camp to prepare, actual production could have been down for multiple teams across the league. Having key players back who underperformed based on expectations due to those type of issues gives teams an opportunity to be more productive overall this fall, which could lead to more wins. Penn State and Michigan are prime examples of teams that had down years compared to the talent on their respective rosters. They are both obvious candidates to bounce back to the top half of the Big Ten standings with so many key players returning after disappointing seasons last fall.

Conversely, Rutgers likely got the most out of its roster last season with the team playing every scheduled game and staying relatively healthy overall. That was not the case across the Big Ten. Schiano led RU closer to its ceiling last season than most other coaches did with their own teams. While it helps reaffirm he is the right leader for the program, it also should signal a degree of caution with expectations for this season.

While the Scarlet Knights are set up well to take another step forward this season as returning players develop and improve, it is weighed against other teams also having an opportunity to make a significant jump that after missing key contributors for extended stretches of last season. It’s a reason why progress for Rutgers this season might not necessarily equal a better record.

After a 3-6 season in Schiano’s first season back at Rutgers, there are many reasons to be optimistic that even more progress will occur this fall. At the same time, there are many key questions that need to be answered if this team going to make another sizable leap forward this season. Having so many starters and almost all of its production returning puts the Scarlet Knights in a much better position entering this season compared to last. However, most other teams in the conference can say the same thing. As Schiano said on Tuesday about his own team, how the Big Ten plays out this fall will come down to execution. The work begins on Wednesday.