Will Rutgers go to a bowl?
In "Part I", I'll give you my quick take the first six games on this years schedule.
Games that I believe could swing either way are marked as such.
Michigan State (at Rutgers Stadium) (Swing Game)
Michigan State is far from a "must win" game this year. Still, the potential of a win over the Spartans is real and the ramifications for a building Rutgers program could be huge. Schiano is in close with a number of "monster" recruits. A win over MSU could bring recruiting dividends the likes of which have never been seen "on the banks" before.
That makes for an interesting dynamic. The Knights will have to be loose coming into a game with a huge upside and little downside.
What about the Spartans? Last year MSU was a Big Ten enigma. In the land of "three times into the line and a cloud of smoke", MSU was "Air Smoker." Jeff Smoker ended up the season 27th in total offense in the nation and 47th in passing efficiency and he led the Spartans to an 8-5 record. Smoker's graduation is a huge loss to MSU, a team that produced little yardage on the ground (111th in the nation). His replacement looks to be redshirt freshman Stephen Reaves (6-1, 200) who completed 15 of 26 for 184 yards in this year's spring game. Reaves was highly recruited as a high school player and is noted as an accurate cool headed QB who rarely gets intercepted. Reaves has the upper hand going into the fall but he'll be fighting senior Damon Dowdell and redshirt freshman Sean Clayton for the starting job. But that could change during August.
Whoever calls the signals for MSU will have plenty of targets to throw to. Eight of the top nine Spartan receivers come back, each of which had 19 or more catches. They'll be led by junior Agim Shabaj who hauled in 57 catches last year for 692 yards and 5 TDs. MSU will have to air it out since they rushed for a pitiful 97.4 yards per game and lost three out of five starting lineman. They expect big things from freshman Jehuu Caucrick (6-0, 234, FB), a highly regarded scholastic fullback and speedster Deandra Cobb (5-10, 186), but the Spartans will still have to deliver the goods on the field and not just on the press releases.
On defense, the Spartans were solid run stoppers last year. They ranked 27th in the nation against the rush but the team lost rush end Greg Taplin and defensive tackles Matthias Askew and Kyle Rasmussen. At linebacker Monquiz Wedlow is also gone. In secondary was ranked 72 in the nation last year and lost 5 years of experience in Darren Ware and Jeremiah McLaurin.
This is a tough call. RU should be both loose and sky high for this game. The Spartans have the receivers to win the game but their QB has yet to get his game feet under him. You can bet that even now the RU staff is working on blitz packages to make that difficult. The RU run game is powerful and diverse and MSU has big holes to fill on the defensive line. In short, the matchups, the motivation and the home field all favor the Knights.
But will we win?
I hope that I am wrong but I think that we are still a tad short of muscle to stop the Spartans.
New Hampshire (at Rutgers Stadium)
God, my heart longs for my beloved New England.
But this is football.
New Hampshire has a good offense led by quarterback, Mike Granieri. Granieri, a New Jersey native, finished the 2003 campaign with 27 total touchdowns, 22 through the air and five on the ground. He completed 237-387 passes for 2,595 yards and threw only eight interceptions. He was a dual threat, running the ball for over 600 yards. He was one of the top Div 1AA QB's in the nation and eight of his top nine receivers return. The Wildcats also boast a good running game with the one negative on offense being the holes UNH needs to fill on the offensive line.
On defense UNH is solid but a bit undersized on the defensive line while they have a solid and talented linebacking corps. That corps led by five years starter, Alan Tallman, 6-2, 225, who had 116 tackles including 64 solos. The secondary has some talented cover guys. Giovani Benson had five interceptions last year. He can fly and he'll undoubtedly get the assignment to cover Tres Moses. All other DB starters return.
This is an up and coming UNH squad. These guys can play the game and they should not to be taken lightly. They'll have a good year in Div 1AA and they'll be a Top 20 team in that division ...
but this is Div1A.
Kent State (at Rutgers Stadium) (Swing game)
The Golden Flashes managed only four division one wins last season but stayed competitive in every game, including losses to 11-3 Bowling Green and 13-1 Miami of Ohio. Their only blow out loss was to a notoriously quirky Pitt Panther team.
Kent has some real talent on offense. QB Joshua Cribs was 25th in the nation in total offensive, 40th in the nation in scoring and 79th in the nation in passing efficiency offense. He is also a threat to run the ball and he ran for over 700 yards last year. His main target is Darrell Dowery, Jr. who was 65th in the nation in receiving yards. Overall this made for a good (56th in the nation in passing, 57th in the nation in running) but not great offense.
On defense, the Golden Flashes were pitiful last year ranking near the bottom of most NCAA statistical categories. At Kent State they blame that on youth and note that just about every one on defense comes back to a team that managed, despite its horrible numbers, to hang in with everyone. The problem is that there aren't many young stars that team supporters can point to, to lead a resurgence on "D".
The Golden Flashes have some talent and a ton of heart. They just hang in games where they ought to get killed. They'll hang in at Rutgers ... but they won't win, but then again any team that hangs around ...
Syracuse (at the Carrier Dome) (Swing Game)
You want a big game. This is it.
If Pasqualoni loses to Rutgers two years in a row, he can kiss his job goodbye.
If Rutgers beats Syracuse two years in a row, Syracuse's perennial player poaching from Jersey is over for the foreseeable future.
These are two teams going in opposite directions. Syracuse has dominated Rutgers for decades but the Orange program is in serious trouble. Orange recruiting has fallen on hard times, with SU now taking players that RU passes on. Rutgers, on the other hand, was an embarrassment during the Shea years but is now a program clearly on the rise. They virtually shut the Orangemen out of recruiting in Jersey last season and now have either passed Syracuse in terms of overall talent or are on the verge of pulling that off.
Last year RU manhandled Syracuse at Rutgers Stadium. If the Knights can win at the dome, RU might pass the Orangemen both in the Big East standings and in the minds of recruits up and down the eastern seaboard. This is a big game and it may determine future dominance in the Big East.
So just what will happen?
On offense Syracuse lost both starting QB RJ Anderson and the freakishly gifted Johnny Morant. Although Morant never lived up to his potential, he was a threat opponents had to watch on every down.
The Orange, however, still have a trump card in their sensational running back, Walter Reyes. Last year Reyes set a school record with 38 touchdowns. He also gained over 2,600 yards and he has a real chance to become Syracuse's all time leading rusher ahead of Joe Morris, Larry Csonka, Floyd Little, Jim Brown and Ernie Davis. Whew!
He'll be sharing time with an equally talented Damien Rhodes. They'll be running behind a fairly experienced offensive line whose main loss was two year starter Kevin Sampson. Syracuse should be run crazy this season.
They may have to be. There is no heir apparent to RJ Anderson and the SU receiving corps is the weakest in memory. In fact, to bolster the receivers Pasqualoni converted CB Stephen Gregory to WR. Pasqualoni has also told incoming wideout recruits that they can expect to play early!
On defense "smattering" is the word. Syracuse has a smattering of players with eye popping talent and a number of unknowns. The "smattering" consists of safety Anthony Smith (106 tackles, 5 interceptions and four pass break ups), Safety Diamond Ferry (120 tackles, 2 interceptions, 5 pass break ups), linebacker Kellen Pruett (96 tackles, 61 solos, 8.5 tackles for loss), and linebacker Kelvin Smith (a 2003 Sporting New freshman All American who had 68 tackles and 6 for a loss). Defensive end James Wyche is the only returning defensive linemen but he may be one of the "unknowns" to watch. The Syracuse staff love his potential.
This game will be a war. There will be blood on the field after the game and only one team will be left standing.
That team will be Rutgers.
The Orange will indeed have a powerful run game but that plays right into RU's hands. The Knights will (for the first time in years) be deep on the defensive line. Add to that a bunch of fast, agile linebackers and Syracuse will be running right into Rutgers' strengths on defense. On the other hand RU's weakness will be their inexperienced secondary. The Orange simply don't have the players to exploit that weakness.
Syracuse has some real top athletes on defense. They just don't have enough of them. If (and that is still a question) RU can get its offensive line to click, Syracuse's rebuilt defensive line will have its' hands full with Hairston, Leonard, Pittman and company. Add to that RU's talented wideouts and depth at tight end and the Orange will be stretched way too thin to win this game.
Syracuse will have a big home field advantage and the motivation not to lose to the Knights two years in a row. On the the other hand, the Orange have RU between games with Virginia and Florida State and you can bet that that will take their attention off the Knights just enough to make the difference.
Vanderbilt (at Nashville, Tennessee) (Swing Game)
Rutgers' fans look at Vanderbilt on the Rutgers schedule and think, "Vanderbilt, we can beat them, who are they?"
Vanderbilt fans look at Rutgers on the Vanderbilt schedule and think, "Rutgers, we can beat them, who are they?"
Vanderbilt was 2-10 last year with its only wins over Div1AA Chattanooga and Kentucky but I wouldn't take them lightly if I were you. The Commodore's play in the fearsomely tough SEC conference. Last year seven teams in that conference had eight wins or more. Four teams had 10 wins or more! Team for team, the SEC may be the toughest in the land.
To make matters worse, the Commodores return 20 of 21 starters whle the Knights play this game away at Nashville after what surely with be a knock down, drag out brawl with Syracuse in the dome.
The Commodore offense is a mixed bag. Vanderbilt has a fine quarterback in Jay Cutler. Last year Cutler threw for 220 yards a game. He can run the ball but is not a major threat to "hoof it". Eric Davis and Brandon Smith return at wideout and they had a very respectable 80 receptions between them. Davis is a true breakaway threat but one of the few such threats on the Vandy roster.
VU's running game was also respectable. A decent running game is found in the combination of tailback Norval McKenzie and fullback Matthew Tant, though neither of them put up great numbers nor is either a threat to "break it" on a play. The Commodore's hope to add that threat with the maturation of Kwame Doster who has two years of playing experience under his belt and is a fine kick returner in his own right.
The heart of the offense is built around to offensive linemen. Justin Geisinger, 6-4, 330 is an All SEC performer. He lines up next to 6-7, 330, Brian Kovolisky, a New Jersey native who is an excellent run blocker. Expect Vandy to run to their side all day.
Jovan Hayes anchored the defensive line. He will join three other returning starters but none of the other returnees had close to the 76 tackles that Hayes pulled in. Hayes, though, can do it all. He is one of the SEC's top pass rushers and he accounted for 8.5 sacks last year.
The linebacking corps is perhaps the strongest unit on the team. Moses Osemwegie is a sensational linebacker who had 128 tackles including 78 solo stops. He'll team up with Otis Washington who would have challenged Osemwegie for total tackles had an injury not hobbled him for the second half of the season.
The secondary, if not spectacular, is both solid and experienced.
Don't underestimate an SEC team that brings back 21 starters. It is an experienced crew, battle tested against some of the top teams in the nation. Nonetheless, Rutgers should win this game. The Knights have something Vanderbilt doesn't. A roster chock full of outstanding skill players who can hurt a defense in many, many ways. Like with Syracuse, Vandy has some answers. They just don't have enough.
Temple (at Rutgers Stadium)
Last year the Owls stunk out the place. They were 84th in the nation in total offense and 95th in the nation in total defense.
Temple should be better this year. Walter Washington came out of junior college touted as Temple's savior at QB. He was good. He hit 53 per cent of his passes for over 1200 yards ... but he wasn't a savior. With a year's experience under his belt he'll be better and his ability to scramble and run should make for an exciting offense. However, Temple's leading receiver (All East Performer) Zamir Cobb is gone. Phil Goodman 47 catches for 670 yards is an exceptionally talented player and has the ability to pick up the slack.
The passing game is only half the story, though.
The Owls couldn't run the ball at all last season. The TU running game stalled out at 95th in the nation. If it wasn't for Washington's scrambling ability, it would have been even worse than that. To fix this problem, Bobby Wallace went and recruited scatback Tim Brown, a JUCO All Star out of California. Brown, only 5'6",won't get the call on 4th and 1 but he is expected to add some gamebreaking ability to help open up the offense.
Rodney Wormly is back at DE after missing a year with an injury. He's a good one and Temple will need him to help shore up a very questionable defensive line.
Linebacker is a different story. Rian "Goo" Wallace may be the top linebacker in the nation. Last year he had 148 tackles including 18.5 for losses. At 6-4, 245 he can hit. Wallace has received just about every preseason nomination you can imagine including First Team All America. He'll line up with 6-2, 240 Jerseyan Troy Bennett, a three year starter who had 84 tackles last season.
The secondary has experience and can tackle but you'll find few interceptions listed among their stats.
Rutgers beat the Owls easily last year playing away at Temple. At Rutgers Stadium an improved Temple team will meet an improved Rutgers team with the same result. Yes, Temple's linebacking corps is superb but they are weak on the DL, adequate (at best) in the secondary and totally unproven in the running game. Rutgers has some question marks this year but not as many as Temple does.
Okay, there it is. A season half over and Rutgers is one game away from bowl qualification. Of course, that is just "on paper". If RU wins all the "swing games" they "bowl qualify" at mid season. If they lose all the "swing games", they are 2-4 and almost out of bowl contention. My guess is that they go 5-1 with Syracuse and Vanderbilt being crucial but close wins and with the Knights winning easily over Kent State.
Check back for Part II and my predictions for the second half of the season.
Mike and the Big Dog's LLC
Mike and the Big Dog's LLC