What Lies Ahead for Rutgers?

Steven SmithContributor ISeptember 17, 2008

The Rutgers Scarlet Knights had extraordinarily high hopes entering the 2008 season.

A phenomenal recruiting class, leadership from fifth-year senior quarterback Mike Teel, and arguably the most talented receiving corps in the Big East (anchored by Tiquan Underwood and Kenny Britt) gave most people a ton of optimism—certainly enough to offset the loss of star running back Ray Rice to the NFL.

Rutgers had two opening games on national TV against formidable non-conference opponents and a chance to show the country that they were going to reestablish themselves as the team to beat in the Big East.

However, the Scarlet Knights controlled the first half against then-21st-ranked Fresno State but only managed to play a scoreless tie until halftime. The second half was filled with RU mistakes and big plays from Fresno State QB Tom Brandstater en route to a 24-7 loss.

Ten days later, Rutgers had a chance at redemption against North Carolina. Except for a strong 15 minutes to open the game, the Scarlet Knights gave up a ton of big plays to Tar Heels' swingman Brandon Tate and were victimized by poor decisions in the passing game from Mike Teel. Three interceptions all led to drives for points for UNC, and the Tar Heels won convincingly in Piscataway, 44-12.

Rutgers has been outscored 68-19, is minus-6 in turnover/takeaway differential, and doesn't have a 100-yard rusher yet this season through two games. Things can't conceivably have gone worse over the first two games for Greg Schiano's squad.

Why is there still reason to be optimistic if you're a Rutgers fan? 

Firstly, the schedule will ease up a little. Rutgers has shown flashes of its ability, but a more prepared, more confident opponent has won out in the end in the first two games.

The Scarlet Knights head to Annapolis to face the Midshipmen of Navy on Saturday. Navy has struggled defensively this season, allowing 29.7 PPG over the first three games. Navy is also a run-heavy offense, and the Rutgers defense has been good against the run this season.

This is the ideal opponent for the Scarlet Knights to get on track and gain some confidence, assuming they can finally convert their chances in the red zone.

After Navy, Rutgers will return home to play Division I-AA opponent Morgan State. If Rutgers can improve to 2-2 before a very important conference showdown at West Virginia, they put themselves right back in the thick of a run toward bowl contention for the fourth straight season.

Secondly, the Big East has had a tough start to the season as a conference. Only two of the conference's eight teams remain undefeated (UConn and South Florida), and only USF has a win against a ranked team (Kansas).

Aside from those two teams, the other six teams in the conference have combined for a 5-9 record. Of those five victories, only two are against Division I-A opponents (Louisville over Kansas State, Pittsburgh over Buffalo).

With five conference opponents who can be beaten (potentially six if you include UConn, who hasn't had an extraordinarily difficult test yet), and a game against Army in the middle of conference play, Rutgers still controls its own destiny. 

Lastly, the team has been lethargic and disappointing in all facets of the game. Rutgers teams have struggled with slow starts in the past under Greg Schiano, and all have found a way to gel together and improve as the season goes on.

Once Rutgers develops a true offensive identity and gets comfortable in game situations with a backfield that lacks Ray Rice (and in turn figures out how the Mason Robinson, Kordell Young, Jourdan Brooks platoon is going to work most effectively), this team has enough talent to turn it around and still make 2008 a very promising season.