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Examining the Big Ten road ahead for Rutgers

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Inconsistency among many programs affords opportunities for the Scarlet Knights.  

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

As summer transitions into fall, the Rutgers Scarlet Knights are undefeated. And while this is good news no matter how you look at it, expectations must be tempered as Rutgers begins Big Ten play.

Through week number three, there have been a few surprises in the Big Ten. Ohio State appears to be much more vulnerable than predicted in the summer while Michigan appears to be stronger than anticipated. This is not good news for Rutgers which will play before 102,000 in the Big House in a nationally televised game this Saturday. Michigan is ranked 19th in the country and looks like the Michigan that Big Ten fans are used to seeing. They’ve returned to their pedigree of playing smash mouth football along with a stifling defense.

It is important to keep in mind however, that like Rutgers, Michigan has not exactly beaten any world beaters to date. Arguably, Northern Illinois, Western Michigan and Washington are collectively a more formidable trio than Temple, Syracuse, and Delaware, but not by much. Until Michigan beats Ohio State and Penn State, we should wait to anoint Michigan as this season’s Big Ten champion.

While Rutgers lost to Michigan in three overtimes last season at SHI Stadium, the game was played in front of an empty stadium with key players not playing as COVID-19 changed our way of life in the profoundest of ways not to mention football. A lot has changed since that exciting overtime loss at SHI Stadium. However, Michigan being Michigan and Rutgers being Rutgers, the prognosticators made the Scarlet Knights an 19-point underdog when the line opened on Sunday.

After Michigan, Rutgers will navigate the rest of its schedule in a Big Ten that provides opportunities to pick up the remaining three wins needed to become bowl eligible. Next up is Ohio State and while the Buckeyes appear less dominant than they have in years, a win is still a tall order to ask for. After the Buckeyes comes Michigan State on October 9th at home. Last season in Mel Tucker’s first year at the helm, the Spartans were a mess and Rutgers took advantage of it, being the beneficiary of seven Michigan State turnovers for the win in East Lansing. But after watching Michigan State dismantle a ranked Miami team last Saturday at Hard Rock Stadium, I am not sure that playing the game at SHI Stadium is going to make much of a difference. Michigan State is a completely different team than the one Rutgers beat in 2020.

On October 16th, Rutgers travels to Evanston to play Northwestern in what looks like a very winnable game after they played poorly at Duke. After a bye week, the Scarlet Knights return to the State of Illinois to play the Fighting Illini under first year coach Bret Bielema. With any luck, Rutgers could have five wins by Halloween.

However, November is a mixed bag for Rutgers. Beginning with a home game against Wisconsin, Rutgers travels to Bloomington on November 13th to play a suddenly vulnerable Indiana squad that has looked very pedestrian to date. But it would be a mistake to assume that a team coached by Tom Allen and with Michael Penix Jr., at quarterback will not work out their kinks by the time Rutgers comes to town. Regardless, the feeling here is that this will be a winnable game despite being on the road.

After playing the Hoosiers, the Scarlet Knights go to Happy Valley to play Penn State, which to date looks like the best team in the Big Ten. A victory in Happy Valley is something that dances in the dreams of all Rutgers fans, young or old. Unfortunately, this will probably remain a dream for the foreseeable future. On November 27th, Maryland comes to SHI Stadium which could be for the right to play in a bowl game. Historically, the Terrapins start every season like a lion and go out like a lamb and the hope is that this pattern will remain true to form.

At this juncture of the season, it is hard to tell if this is an up or down year for the Big Ten. Penn State, Iowa, Michigan, and Michigan State have all been better than advertised. Minnesota, Purdue, and Wisconsin have been about what prognosticators have expected while Nebraska seems to be gaining its footing after going into Norman and giving the No. 3 Oklahoma Sooners all it could handle.

Northwestern, Illinois, Indiana and Maryland all fall somewhere in the middle with varying degrees of ups and downs.

Looking at the overall picture, the Big Ten is what we all thought it would be. A formidable Power Five Conference with its top tier teams in a position to play in January and at least six schools pretty much assured of making a bowl game.

The question is will Rutgers be one of those teams? Now that Big Ten play is here, we are about to find out.