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OTB Staff Roundtable: What are reasonable expectations for Rutgers football?

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Almost a dozen contributors debate on what should be expected this season.

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

With the 2021 season set to kickoff in just a few weeks now, our staff got together to discuss what reasonable expectations for year two of Greg Schiano’s second tenure should be. Should we judge progress by wins and losses, the eye test, player development or something else altogether? As usual, we have a variety of opinions. Here is what our contributors think expectations should be heading into the season opener on September 2 against Temple.

Dave White: Year 2s are tricky. Usually in year 1, the fan base watches a few games and gets fired up because after years of being dreadful, a team actually looks like it can play football. That happened last year, as Rutgers was able to surprise some teams and won 3 Big Ten games. Add on to that Rutgers incredible success recruiting and fans are chomping at the bit for the next step in the rebuild. To be honest (and I am always wrong), I don’t think Rutgers is bowl bound and I don’t think a fan should reasonably expect a bowl.

The Big Ten was a mess last year with teams going through COVID issues and players taking a waiver and just the inability to prepare they were usually able to. I think there’s potential for a step back with Rutgers this year. Not a major one, and nothing that will endanger Rutgers ceiling, but I think the Big Ten will be better. My reasonable expectation is for Rutgers to just keep moving the build forward. Success on the recruiting trail, surprise a team and don’t look like a disaster on the field. I think that will happen. The coaching staff is good enough for that, but I don’t think a reasonable expectation is for this team to make a big jump. Look at this as the bridge year in the rebuild.

Greg Patuto: Expectations. A word that can make or break a fan’s morale heading into a season — no matter the sport. For Rutgers, this word can carry a positive connotation but it is important to stay within reason.

First things first, the Scarlet Knights won three games last year and lost three by one score. Schiano is back, full stadiums might be back, and plenty of production is back in 2021. While this is important, many teams will have a lot of returning production with the 2020 season not counting toward eligibility. Fans will judge this season using one question, can Rutgers make a bowl? The short answer is simple: Maybe. There is a chance the Scarlet Knights can navigate their way to six victories but the words “likely” and “should make” cannot be attached. There are plenty of inconsistencies still present, not to mention the gauntlet schedule that is present in the Big Ten.

When thinking about reasonable expectations, just sit back and enjoy the ride. There will be games where Rutgers is favored and there will be games where they do not compete. There will also be plenty to rely on. The head coach is elite and the future recruiting classes are strong. Parlay that with some wins this season and the future could be bright around the program. But in 2021, remain neutral and do not get too high or too low.

Lawrence Krayn: I think it’s reasonable to expect improvement this season. To me, it doesn’t matter whether it’s slight or drastic, but the offense should look even crisper, the defense should be a bit more stout, and we should feel an increase in competitiveness across the entire schedule. We made big strides last season as compared to the last few years, and I’m not one to buy into the idea that somehow the “covid year” was an outlier. This team and staff is another year into the implementation of their plan, and we should see steps forward rather than steps back. I am not sure what this equates to in wins, but this year, I think the floor is 4 and the ceiling is 7.

Andrew Cangiano: Let’s be honest excitement has to be high in Piscataway this season after last year’s vast improvements under Greg Schiano in his second stint as head coach. The Scarlet Knights return most of their key contributors from a season ago, including 20 of 22 starters overall and their entire starting offense. They also have a number of transfers and incoming freshman who could make an impact. Coach Schiano has this team moving in the right direction.

Is it reasonable for this team to compete for a bowl game? I believe the answer is yes. It will come down to a few close games. If Rutgers wins all three of their non-conference games against Syracuse, Temple and Delaware, then the Scarlet Knights would need just three conference wins in nine tries to become bowl eligible. I believe that is possible looking at their schedule (I would consider every contest but Ohio state and Wisconsin to be competitive or winnable). Rutgers is clearly no longer the laughingstock of the Big Ten, but that means the Scarlet Knights will no longer have the element of surprise, as their opponents know they are much improved.

I expect continued improvement from quarterback Noah Vedral in terms of taking care of the football and his overall decision making. Additionally, one can hope the offensive line continues to improve which is also important for Bo Melton and Isaiah Pacheco to have great seasons. Defensively, Scarlet Knight fans can hope for continued improvement along the defensive front, and the linebackers and the secondary to be a strength. I expect to see a ball-hawking defense that causes havoc and turnovers.

I’m especially excited about the special teams with the addition of transfer Josh Youngblood from Kansas State (the Big 12 special teams player of the year as a true freshman in 2019) alongside the dangerous Aron Cruickshank on kick returns, and Melton returning punts. The kicking game will play a major role, as I believe it will potentially decide several close games.

I think the biggest reward for Scarlet Knight fans this year will be to see this team live and in person at SHI stadium. It is finally the opportunity for fans to get a chance to see an improved product on the field after a long wait. Realistically I think fans can expect 5-6 wins and a competitive team this season under Coach Schiano.

Chris Banker: To me, further progress in program-building is a reasonable expectation for the 2021 Rutgers football season, and that can come in many forms. Can the Scarlet Knights find their way to bowl eligibility? I wrote a column on this, but I also don’t think it should be the only measuring stick of success for the coming campaign. If Greg Schiano and his staff are able to produce another year of measurable improvement in all phases of the game, I don’t think the fanbase could reasonably see that as anything but a positive.

There is a lot of talent returning on this roster, which should go a long way to building on last year’s somewhat surprising results. In black and white terms, I’m looking for Rutgers to win their non-conference games, and be competitive in each of the Big Ten clashes — beating comparable opponents (think Illinois), and perhaps putting a scare into one of the blue bloods. Keeping the Chris Ash-era blowouts in the past and inching toward a 6-win season will go a long way to satisfying even the most demanding Scarlet Knights faithful.

Jack Bisaha: Looking at the 2021 schedule, I think it is reasonable to think Rutgers football can become bowl eligible this season and reach six wins. To accomplish this, I cannot emphasize how important it will be to to take care of business in the program’s three out-of-conference games to start the season; home vs. Temple and Delaware and the toughest of the three, at Syracuse.

If the Scarlet Knights manage to secure all three wins, then only three more wins will remain to pick up against Big Ten opponents, a mark they were able to attain last season amidst all of the difficulties last season presented. I think everybody knows how difficult the Big Ten can be, and that will be showcased when Rutgers will be faced with a four-game stretch that features visits from Ohio State and Michigan State to Piscataway as well as road trips to Michigan and Northwestern. If Rutgers can pull out at least one win from this stretch, with the most likely opportunity being the Michigan State game on Oct. 9, they will be in good shape to accomplish that six win goal.

Say the Scarlet Knights follow up this stretch of games with a win vs. Illinois, a team projected to finish near the bottom of the Big Ten this season, then Rutgers will need just one win in its last four games to become bowl eligible for the first time since 2014. Just going to mention this as well, one of those last four games is a matchup against Penn State.

While a chance at bowl eligibility should be a goal of the program, fans should expect improvement from last season’s three win total. With Greg Schiano now in his second season and a full offseason to teach his players the system, improvement should not be hoped for, it should be expected. Couple that with the fact that the Scarlet Knights have the 13th ranked 2022 recruiting class in the country, the future is sky high in New Jersey.

David Anderson: Dave White’s point “Success on the recruiting trail, surprise a team and don’t look like a disaster on the field,” is exactly where my head is as well when it comes to “reasonable.” Greg elaborated on how bowl game would be gravy, though if I was in that locker room it better be at least one of our primary goals as a team. I also agree with Lawrence that the offense, even if it doesn't score as many points with gimmicks and catching teams off-guard needs to be crisp and generate a long scoring drive or two each game because that is the mark of sustainable offensive success.

A lot of things went wrong in the Ash era, but on the Mt. Rushmore of errors was that most of the scoring came on explosive plays so against equal or superior opponents that was not going to win games consistently. As many of you know, I don’t put too much stock into defensive statistics this day and age in college football. Rutgers was last in the Big Ten in run defense in 2019 officially but they stopped a lot of runs for minimal gains before eventually wearing out when the offense was so pathetic.

At the risk of being wrong, I will dip my toe into the pool of predictions as Chris did. Sticking with the defense I need to see more sacks when they do not blitz or at the very least from guys on the defensive line winning their 1-on-1 matchup.

Second, Rutgers cannot have a game where an opposing QB runs for over 100 yards; remember in college sacks count as negative rushing yardage. The Illinois and Nebraska losses saw opposing QB run for 192?!?!?!? (not a misprint) and 157 yards respectively which is a clear indication that the linebackers and safeties are not filling the lanes properly.

On special teams, reasonable is two blocked kicks, three return touchdowns, and more than zero touchbacks from Adam Korsak because nobody is perfect. Finishing on offense, expect Rutgers QB to complete 65% of their passes (62.7% last year) for over 2,200 yards (1,789 last year), and rush for 2,000 as a team. For reference, this would put the team in the neighborhood of the 2015 team that went 4-8 and won just a single Big Ten contest so my final prediction is that the team will make a jump in at least one major area / statistical category, win five contests but hang tough in all but two games. That should be enough to keep the recruiting class intact and the needle moving in the right direction.

Cara Sanfilippo: Man, am I excited to be back in that stadium! Ok, expectation complete. Just kidding although, after this past year, having fans back in the stadium to wreck some havoc is an accomplishment in and of itself. I have, as I am sure many fans have, been thinking about this as well. My cousins were supposed to go to Vegas this month, pre Delta variant, and were going to put a bet in for my Dad and I for the over/under on the season. The line was 4. My bet was for over because either I am a masochist or I feel like a lot of times on this site my predictions are pretty spot on. I am an optimist.

I believe that Rutgers should win their first three out of conference games, which puts us at 3-0 to start the season and ahead of the brutal conference schedule. Knowing there are some guaranteed loses ahead barring some major upsets, I still expect them to be in every game. Still to be over 4, we just have to win two games. I think they can do that. I think RU needs to finally beat Illinois. That puts it at 4. I think they should beat Maryland. Five. And I believe there is a chance to win against Michigan State again this season. Do I think that’s a guarantee for Rutgers to go to a bowl? Not necessarily but as many of my colleagues mentioned, that should be the goal. The cherry on top for me would be if after so many years of their fans harassing us in the stadium and James Franklin running up the score, that Rutgers finally beats Penn State. Especially after that close loss in 2014 at home.

Beyond the win/loss column, I want to inject some energy back into the stadium. I think enough has been said about the Ash Era that I don’t need to put another nail in the guy’s Rutgers career coffin. However, it was just so boring and deflating to be in the stadium when that guy was head coach. Offense was vanilla, Rutgers seemed to run the same four plays over and over again to no avail, and defense couldn’t seem to take an opposing player down on the first tackle. It was expected that they were going to lose and the question was just by how much. We have more scoreless games than should be acceptable. So with all that in the rearview mirror, I just want the fans who lived through that and the players who had to be part of it to just have fun this season.

If Rutgers can do that, and improve on last season’s performance, I will be happy and not have to convince my Dad that we should stay until the end of the game. Oh, and one more thing, I expect Noah Vedral to really step up this season so Sean Gleason can really open up the playbook in his second season. Fun, exciting football that I can watch outside of TV football shows and NFL games so we can all have something to root for this season. I personally cannot wait.

B Vincent P: I will save my seasons win/loss predictions to the week before the season starts and share more about what I think is reasonable to expect in growth. Net-net this team will take a huge step forward in year two of the Schiano 2.0 era. I expect RU to be consistent in the trenches (buoyed by the 20+ returning players), play with intensity (win the crowd), win the turnover game (hallmark of a Schiano team), reduce the mental errors that result unnecessary penalties (this has been a killer year or year), and force the game to be won in the final 15 minutes (cliché, but Schiano ball).

If the above does not happen this will be a rough season. I don’t expect any blowouts, in either direction, except for possibly tOSU (the class of the league and top 5 nationally. If the deficit is less than 21 points, that is not considered a blowout by tOSU standards).

We should see a team that executes, where each players knows their responsibilities, plays with heart, will fight to play above their recruiting grade, and will embody all that we expect from a Schiano coaching staff. This will be a fun year, and one where RU will shock a few teams, and hope they don’t get shocked. A significant sign of growth would be getting over the proverbial hump and winning 1-2 games against the B1G Blue Bloods, while winning the toss up games. Winning all three non-conference games is a MUST! Hard to not be excited for this year!

Fred Gaudios: Every time I see a website post their Big Ten season predictions, I read the predictions (often to my own detriment, because there are A LOT of websites who do this for the clicks/attention, in my opinion, not so much for the deep analysis). For whatever it’s worth, I feel like the general (and-possibly-uninformed) consensus is around four wins for Rutgers football this season. I am more optimistic than these sources.

I think Rutgers reasonably can win five games (if I had to guess, it’d be all three non-cons + two conference games), maybe even six if you want to dream, this season. There are reasons for this — more continuity among the players and coaching staff than fans have seen in the recent past, as well as a full off-season of practice, as I’m sure others have mentioned above. Hope springs eternal in August, but I pretty strongly believe this isn’t a three- or four-win team. I reasonably expect progress, real win-loss type progress, this season.

Aaron Breitman: My expectations for this season are modest due to many factors. A major reason for optimism is that this program finally had a relatively normal offseason. Greg Schiano and his staff have had time since last season ended to truly put their fingerprints on every aspect of the program, on and off the field. The progress made last fall was incredible, but I think it has also created a false sense that equal progress should occur this season as well. I don’t know if that is realistic.

Although Rutgers let wins against Illinois and Michigan slip through the cracks, it’s hard to argue against the idea that more went right for them last season compared to what went wrong. It is a testament to the coaches and players that they created some of their luck through their hard work. But every season is different and Rutgers needs to be viewed through the lens of the entire conference.

Rutgers was far more healthy than most Big Ten teams last season, whether it was Covid related or physical. Almost every team in the conference returns the overwhelming majority of their roster. That means Rutgers has to stay near the top of the most healthiest teams in the conference or it could spell trouble. The roster depth is much improved under Schiano, but it’s not at a level yet where a certain number of injuries to key players wouldn’t be a significant issue. If attrition occurs with either line, it’s going to seriously impact progress being made as a team.

Expecting Rutgers to be improved and show signs of player and team development should absolutely be the case for fans. However, how much of it will be enough to overcome the same things happening with almost every Big Ten opponent? Also, playing Wisconsin and Northwestern as crossover opponents is more difficult than Purdue and Nebraska were last season.

I’m a firm believer progress will occur this fall but I don’t think it will necessarily be reflected in the win column. Honestly, it would be a plus if it did but I don’t think it would be a negative if it didn’t.

I couldn’t be more positive about the future of Rutgers football under Greg Schiano. As for this season, making sure the build in year two maintains and strengthens the solid foundation in place is absolutely the only thing that must occur this season.

You need younger players to contribute and develop this fall, otherwise next season Rutgers will have a very inexperienced team and be less prepared to compete for a bowl game. Year three is when that should be expected. That being said, having a more competitive and more competent football team with a significant portion of the roster having been part of a 21 game losing streak in Big Ten play would be something to be proud of. Successfully meshing those two dynamics within the team together to make progress would be more proof that Schiano and his staff are building a winning program in the long term.

If Rutgers goes bowling this season, it would mark one of the greatest turnarounds in college football history. It’s not fair to expect that, but this program has given fans a reason to believe in them again and it’s fair to hope for the postseason. Strengthening those feelings for the future following this season would mark progress as well.

Thanks for reading our first round table of the football preseason/season and let us know your thoughts in the comment section.