The football stuff first: This will be a season where Rutgers likely takes a step back, but then can take three steps forward down the road.
The Scarlet Knights have more talent now than last year. That does not mean the record will improve. The schedule is more challenging. The offensive line will improve, but will it be good enough? The linebacking corps is a concern. We remain a tad skeptical about the offensive skill players and secondary. And there will be growing pains as the Gavin Wimsatt era begins in full at quarterback (yes, we believe he will start Saturday at Boston College).
Rutgers has to beat the Eagles to give itself a fighting chance for six wins and a traditional bowl bid. That sounds dramatic, but look at the slate. The math gets daunting without a 1-0 start. An issue because BC will probably be a bit too much. And that will likely be a theme this fall.
This feels like a three- or four-win Rutgers team on the field. But the accurate measure of Greg Schiano’s third season back at the helm will be how the Scarlet Knights continue their progress outside the lines.
Rutgers must recruit, develop and retain talent to take the next step. That means it must build a NIL war chest and eventually break ground on a new football facility. It also needs to pay competitive coaching salaries and put butts in the seats at SHI Stadium every home weekend, among other things. That falls on Schiano, the athletics department and university. But it also falls on a fickle fanbase whose excitement and engagement can waver when things get tough. It’s up to Schiano and Rutgers to prevent that from happening.
The Scarlet Knights need a moment. One we think can occur: A win over Nebraska at home on Oct. 7. The Cornhuskers may have fired Scott Frost by then. No matter. Nebraska is still Nebraska, even in this current state. A Rutgers win would be a breakthrough moment for the Scarlet Knights.
Be competitive. Ohio State will likely steamroll the Scarlet Knights in Columbus on Oct. 1. Fine. Things cannot get ugly anywhere else on the schedule. That means hanging tough with Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State. Minnesota, too — we are high on the Golden Gophers. Rutgers also needs to beat Indiana and at least be equal to Maryland. There will be no long-term growth without surpassing those programs.
The focus should be developing Wimsatt. Even at the expense of a win or two. He is the future and the most-talented passer on the roster. He gives Rutgers the ability to do things on offense they cannot do with Noah Vedral (quick aside: This is also a big, big year for offensive coordinator Sean Gleeson, whose unit regressed in 2021).
Schiano was always changing quarterbacks during his first stint, but he was remarkably committed to Vedral the last two seasons. His job was never in much doubt, even when Artur Sitkowski and Cole Snyder pushed amid Vedral’s injuries and struggles. Schiano needs to grant the same patience to Wimsatt.
Rutgers also needs to sell. Sell the progress made, even if the record does not reflect it. Sell the vision for the program. Push the importance of NIL and facilities, and how a committed fanbase can donate its way to success more than ever. And recruit, recruit, recruit. If wins will not power these endeavors, goals like the ones mentioned above must. And the Scarlet Knights need to realize even that may not be completely enough. Which is why, above all else, they must consistently explain the process and what is needed moving forward.
A college football coach’s third season is typically the make-or-break year. The culture is established, the players are your own. You either win and get a contract extension (or a better job). Or you disappoint as things start going downhill with little hope to reverse course. That is not where Schiano and Rutgers are. He has all the job security in the world. And the Scarlet Knights are still climbing out of the crater created during the Chris Ash and Kyle Flood years.
But this will be the trickiest chapter of the rebuild to date. It has been a linear ascent so far. Now there may be a dip. If Schiano and Rutgers can weather that storm and keep the critical parties on board and committed, there is a chance to take off in 2023.
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