Rutgers Football: 5 Most Highly Anticipated Games Next Year
Seeing long-time coach Greg Schiano depart to the NFL was a difficult sight for Rutgers fans, especially those who had witnessed the New Jersey native build the program from irrelevancy to national recognition.
It is ironic, then, that Schiano's departure coincides with a year in which his hard work may appear to finally pay off in their first Big East championship. In what looks to be the strongest team since 2006's historic season, first-year head coach Kyle Flood will inherit a team returning 15 starters from last season's surprising 9-4 campaign. Eight to a defense which was one of, if not the best, in the conference.
Although questions still remain on offense, particularly in the QB race, West Virginia's departure has posited the Scarlet Knights as a potential contender for the Big East title in 2012. If Flood hopes to achieve in his first year what Schiano could never accomplish in his long tenure and take home the conference crown, their performance in these five pivotal games will be crucial.
@ Tulane: Saturday, September 1
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In the first game of the Kyle Flood era at Rutgers, the Scarlet Knights will get an early chance to flex their talents in Baton Rouge in Week 1.
In his first game roaming the sidelines, Flood will get a chance to avenge an embarrassing 17-14 homecoming game loss to Tulane in 2010. Although Flood has the unfortunate luck of starting his head coaching career on the road, the Green Wave should not prove too insurmountable for an experienced Rutgers squad. Tulane finished to 2011 season at 2-11, and return only 14 starters to the program's first year under new head coach Curtis Johnson.
While Tulane may not prove too much of challenge for a Rutgers team with such considerable depth, the Week 1 matchup will be anticipated heavily in New Brunswick. Fans will get their first look at whoever will assume the mantle of starter at QB (still an open competition between Chas Dodd and Gary Nova), as well as how well Floyd and the Knights can execute early in the year.
The latter will be of particular importance considering the Knights' early-season schedule...
@ USF: Saturday, September 15
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Two weeks after Flood's debut, he will receive his first real challenge as head coach when the Knights' travel down to Tampa to face the Bulls in Week 3.
In the Scarlet Knights' Big East opener, they face a South Florida with an under-achieving past but an ability to surprise. The Bulls were an early contender in last year's Big East title hunt, going 4-0 with an impressive win over Notre Dame in their opener before falling in six of their last seven games to finish the season 5-7. However, USF returns 18 starters from a team that showed potential at times, and could prove to be a darkhorse in this year's race.
Rutgers needed a miraculous fourth quarter rally and an overtime period to take the W in last year's matchup, and could need similar heroics in Tampa this year. However, the Scarlet Knights' superior defense should give them an edge over a Bulls team that struggled offensively in 2011, making the Thursday night matchup a very winnable game.
@ Arkansas: Saturday, September 22
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After receiving their first taste of real competition in 2012, the Knights will have to prepare for what will likely be the toughest opponent they see next season.
In one of Rutgers' most prominent non-conference games in recent program history, the Scarlet Knights will travel to Fayetteville to take on an Arkansas team that some believe could challenge for the SEC title this season. Despite former coach Bobby Petrino's disgrace and dismissal this offseason, the Hogs are still a very talented team, returning several key contributors from last season including first-team All-SEC QB Tyler Wilson. Aided by a notoriously hostile home crowd, the Razorbacks should give Rutgers its most difficult matchup all year.
Although Rutgers appears to be quite the underdog heading into the Sept. 22nd matchup, fans should still look forward to what appears to be the biggest marquee matchup in several years for the Knights, giving Rutgers faithful a chance to see where the talented programs stands amongst the national landscape in 2012.
@ Cincinnati: Saturday, November 17
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If the Knights can survive their early-season tests, their easy midseason schedule could leave them with an impressive 7-2 or 8-1 record heading into a tough late-season stretch of conference road play to close out the season.
That tough stretch begins with the Bearcats in Cincinnati on November 17th. The co-champs of the Big East in last season, the Bearcats lose several key starters from last year but remain a dangerous road game opponent for the Knights in 2012. 10-3 in 2011 thanks in large part to a formidable defensive unit that averaged 3.5 sacks per game, the Bearcats return enough starters to the unit to give new offensive coordinator Dave Brock a stiff challenge to plan for.
If the Knights can execute well in their early season challenges, they could head into this mid-November matchup with a 7-2 or 8-1 record, making this game and the week after's matchup at Pitt imperative to Rutgers' Big East title dreams in 2012.
Vs. Louisville: Thursday, November 29
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If all goes as planned for the Knights and Rutgers is able to escape their difficult late season road stretch, Coach Flood and his team could find themselves in a very exciting position heading into their final game of the season.
In the Scarlet Knight's home finale, they host last year's co-champion and this season's title favorite in the Cardinals. Louisville returns 14 starters from last season's surprising campaign, including talented freshman passer Teddy Bridgewater, who is poised to become of the league's best arms in 2012. The Cardinals also return seven starters to an impressive defensive squad, who ranked 18th nationally in points allowed last year and stifled the Knights' offense in a 16-14 win in Louisville last season.
The Cardinals may be the preseason pick to win the conference after West Virginia's departure, but if the Knights can play well early and survive a tough late season stretch, they could find themselves in an ideal position to win or share the Big East title come November 29th. On what will surely be a nationally-televised game, the Knights could have an opportunity to take home their first Big East title in program history.