Turnaround Shows What Could Have Been for Rutgers in 2008

Adam HelfgottCorrespondent IDecember 14, 2008

After thrashing the Louisville Cardinals 63-14 on Dec. 4 it became clear that Rutgers was the hottest team in the Big East. The Scarlet Knights were winners of their last six games and averaged over 46 points a game in their last four contests. Mike Teel looked like an all-American candidate and the Rutgers front seven showed how potent the defense could be.

But by the end of the weekend Rutgers would earn an invitation to the third tier PapaJohns.com bowl in Birmingham, Alabama. Not the bowl the Scarlet Knights were hoping for after finishing in a tie for second place in the conference (5-2 in conference) with Pittsburgh and West Virginia.

After a few weeks of thought I have tried to sit back and look at the 2008 regular season as a whole. People have been asking me all along how I would characterize the 2008 Scarlet Knights. And though I would not dare use disappointment after finishing with a winning record after starting 1-5, the word that comes to mind is frustrating.

There are many reasons as to why the 2008 season can be deemed as frustrating for the Rutgers football program and its fans.

Simply put, this Rutgers football team is most likely the most talented team to play in Piscataway in a very long time. With a fifth year senior quarterback, two 1,000 yard receivers and a solid defensive line back from 2007 there was no excuse as to why the 2008 Knights started off 1-5.

This team was out coached, out hustled, and out played throughout the fix six weeks of the season. The low point clearly came when Rutgers lost to Navy on the road after Mike Teel threw the game ending interception and proceeded to gingerly walk to the sideline and hit teammate Glen Lee after the two exchanged words.

After going on the road and losing to Cincinnati by three and West Virginia by seven, it seemed as if the 2008 season would be a losing one. But then came the amazing turnaround which included wins over South Florida and Pittsburgh on the road where in both games the Knights completely dominated the opposition.

If winning two conference road games weren’t enough, Rutgers completely dismantled Louisville on a Thursday night to show how dangerous a team they had become.

This Rutgers squad is one with immense talent and Jackal and Hyde character. All the credit in the world must be given to the coaching staff and the players for believing in one another. It would have been very easy to give up on the season but the players never quit, not once.

But looking back on the season there is no doubt the phrase “what if?” echoes through the minds of players and fans.

What if Rutgers had beaten one more out of conference team? If Rutgers had beaten Navy and finished with eight wins most likely the Sun Bowl would have been more attracted to the Scarlet Knights.

What if Rutgers had beaten Cincinnati? This is now two out of three years in which the Bearcats took away the conference title from the Scarlet Knights. If Rutgers had beaten Cincinnati is 2006 and 2008 Rutgers would have two conference championships under its belt.

What if Mike Teel and the offense played the first six games like their last six? You could make the argument Rutgers would not have lost a single game on their schedule if this were true.

What if Rutgers were in a better conference than the Big East, say the Big Ten? Then a 7-5 second place Rutgers team would probably finish middle of the road say like Wisconsin this season. But Rutgers would still be heading to Orlando and the Outback Bowl and not the dingy PapaJohns.com bowl. With awful bowl contracts connected to the Big East it is apparent the Scarlet Knights will have to earn the BCS berth to ever play in a meaningful bowl game.

The bottom line is that this was a season of many lows and many highs. Not many people believed this team would get to its fourth consecutive bowl game or finish in second place in the conference. Few also believed this team could start as poor as 1-5.

Exciting, passionate, determinate, woeful, unenthusiastic, and many other adjectives were used to describe the 2008 Scarlet Knights at different points throughout the season. But one cannot look back and not think “what if?” and not think about how frustrating it is to know this team is probably the best in the Big East.

And how will Rutgers get to display their level of talent? Against a middle of the road ACC team (yes I know NC State started 2-6 and are now 6-6) in a poorly run bowl game in a dump of a stadium.

When will Rutgers get over the frustration barrier? When will a Greg Schiano’s team win the conference games that matter most so Rutgers will get their first conference title? Bowl games and winning seasons are what New Jersey needs, but they also like championships.

This was supposed to be the season that Rutgers got some type of a championship. For all that happened no one should forget the amazing turnaround but no one should also forget what should have been in 2008. The players should have been ready, the coaches should have been ready and we know the fans were.

So kudos to Rutgers on even getting to a bowl game, it certainly is impressive. But remember when people expected a championship at the start of the 2008 season? You could have sold me that the trophy they would earn would something to do with food, say oranges? Not pizza?