I recall a moment in the movie Great Balls of Fire where rocker Jerry Lee Lewis (played by Dennis Quaid), upset that Chuck Berry will get to perform last at an Alan Freed show, torches his piano while performing his hit song. As he walks off the stage, he tells Berry, "Follow that, Killer!"
Such is the life of a football coach. The Rutgers record counter has been reset from 11-2 and is once again 0-0. The memories of last season will last a lifetime, but now Coach Greg Schiano needs to give the fans and the pollsters reason to forget last season. If repeating that level of success isn't hard enough, Schiano must start the new season without some key departed players and some real questions.
The problem with breakout seasons is that nobody takes them too seriously. Chants of "Overrated" by the Cincinnati fans still echo in Mike Teel's ears. The triple-overtime loss to West Virginia still haunts Greg Schiano. Rutgers starts the season with a #16 AP Ranking, but there is a big invisible asterisk next to that ranking, because one poor performance early in the season or any loss could easily drop Rutgers right off the rankings. Such is the fickleness of the AP voters.
Usually you don't get a second chance. Rutgers' undefeated 1976 season was followed by season-opening shellackings to Penn State and Colgate in 1977. That heralded squad scored 7-68 against those two teams before returning to their winning ways against teams such as Bucknell and Princeton, and the rest of the football world quickly decided that their perfect record of the previous season was nothing more than a one-hit wonder.
This season we hope not to see the same sort of let-down. Sure there have been changes in the off-season, but to most observers they have been nothing but positive.
Schiano re-shuffled the coaching assignments during the off-season, but for the most part the same men are there. Promoting John McNulty to Offensive Coordinator was a great move not only to keep him from being hired by Miami, but to reward the contributions of last season's Assistant OC. Craig Ver Steeg's transfer to Running Backs coach was less a demotion, and more an opportunity to promote his successor while he considers expected Division I-AA Head Coaching offers next season. Most importantly, Greg Schiano is still there. After quickly rejecting overtures from Miami, Schiano received another contract extension and a raise, and is expected to remain on the Banks for the foreseeable future. Why not? Thanks to some impressive recruiting classes, Schiano enjoys quality starters and good depth at nearly every position, and works with an Athletic Director who has supported him at every turn.
Last year's consummate team leader was Brian Leonard. His running was deemphasized as Ray Rice became the full time feature back, but he was very much the heart and soul of the offense and the team's psyche. His replacement is an untested red shirt Freshman Jack Corcoran (who Matei spoke to recently), but from all reports, Corcoran, while no Brian Leonard is a fine fullback in his own right.
Unfortunately the same cannot be said for Tight End. The loss of Clark Harris will be felt as none of the players at the position made significant steps to grab the starting job. Chris Rudanovic may have been named starter, but he will be heavily sharing time with Kevin Brock and Shamar Graves.
Mike Teel is now entrenched as starting Quarterback and takes his role as Team Captain seriously. This young man may be the leader who can pick up the sword that Leonard left for him. After a slow start his performance began to pick up at the end of last season, and this year as a bonus we will probably get to see some pace-changing plays by backup QB Jabu Lovelace who dazzled the fans in the Spring Scarlet-White game.
Until last week it appeared that things were looking up at Wide Receiver. Other teams might have struggled to lose a Team Captain at any position, but due to season-ending injuries, Shawn Tucker became an off-the-field captain and the younger players got a chance to shine. It appeared that the Rutgers pass offense might be a huge strength with big and talented Kenny Britt and unbelievably fast Tim Brown starting, but Brown's injury in last weekend's scrimmage (he broke his hand diving to save a ball that bounced off TE Kevin Brock's hands) will leave him sitting out until conference play begins. RS Soph. Dennis Campbell will have a chance to redeem himself at wide receiver as well as returning punts and kicks.
Once again it appears that the Offensive Line will be the strength of the offense. The only significant question in the preseason was whether Kevin Haslam or blue-chip freshman Anthony Davis would start at Right Guard. The good news is that it appears that this is a competition where two excellent players fought to come out on top. I expect Haslam to start early in the season, but Davis will get plenty of playing time and may unseat him before the end of the year.
On Defense there aren't nearly as many questions. The Defensive Line appears to be pretty much set, and the defensive backs, while thin in places, have looked good. The same cannot be said for Linebacker. Defensive Coordinator Greg Schiano spent most of August trying different combinations of players, yet still no one player has stood out at middle linebacker which is in many ways the key to Schiano's aggressive defensive schemes. Devraun Thompson stood out for his smart play and tenacity in this spot, yet none of his backups learned from his example. After a long battle and several injuries, Damaso Munoz appears to be the last middle linebacker standing (literally). Munoz may have backed into the role, but he has about a month to convince Schiano that he's the guy before the possible return of Ryan D'Imperio.
Now it is just a few days before the start of the 2007 season. Once again Rutgers will start the season with several consecutive out-of-conference home games. The early competition is not expected to be difficult. The most difficult early contest will be in week 4 against Maryland, but this isn't too different from last season.
The season opener is the MAC doormat Buffalo Bulls. Sorry, did I say MAC doormat? According to ESPN, Buffalo is the College Football doormat, ranked 119th out of 119 Division I-A teams in their eighth year of not-so-big time college football. Buffalo enters the 2007 season led by Junior QB Drew Willy who works primarily with WR Ernest Jackson and RB James Starks. Namaan Roosevelt is another fast WR who may come in as a change of pace QB. Possibly the best news for Buffalo fans is that the Bulls return 4 of last season's starting offensive linemen who gave up only 3.5 sacks per game ... On second thought, maybe 3.5 sacks a game isn't such good news after all.
Magic_Al's Completely Intoxicated Prediction:
Rutgers: 34, Buffalo: 13
Around the Big East
The best news for the Big East is simply that not a lot has changed. A few coaches left, but by all accounts their replacements may be immediate improvements. Considering that the Big East redeemed themselves last season with three Top 12 teams, a 5-0 bowl record, and three of the highest rated games all season, a lack of change was just what the conference hoped for. That's not to say that there were no changes. Two teams picked up new coaches, and two teams may be giving their current coaches a long, hard look this season.
The new coach in Louisville is Steve Kragthorpe who came over from Tulsa after Bobby Petrino left for the Atlanta Falcons. He was able to persuade several key players including QB Brian Brohm and LB Malik Jackson to skip the NFL draft for another shot at a national championship. The Cardinals are expected to play a new spread offense introduced by Kragthorpe. If there is one area of uncertainty, it is the Defense which only returns 5 starters. #10 Ranked Louisville's opening game against Murray State is Thursday at 7:30PM on ESPNU (but you'll be watching Rutgers instead...).
The other team with a new coach is Cincinnati. Brian Kelly came over from Central Michigan and immediately entered the hot seat, bringing the Bearcats to the International Bowl where they defeated Western Michigan 27-24. Like Louisville, Cincinnati is expected to take up a pass-oriented spread offense. They feel they have the QB to run such a scheme in Dustin Grutza, but unlike Brohm, Grutza will be looking over his shoulder at several promising backups who could take over the position if he struggles. Cincinnati returns 7 offensive starters and 8 on defense. Rutgers fans should keep a close eye on Cincinnati. They were better last season than Rutgers gave them credit for. Cincinnati's opening game against SE Missouri State is also on Thursday night (ESPN360).
Pittsburgh had the most disappointing season in the Big East last season. After winning five of their first six games and reaching a ranking of 26 on the AP poll last season, Pitt's October 21 loss to Rutgers started a 5 game slide and ended the season with a 6-6 record. They were bowl eligible, but were left to stew at home. Dave Wannstedt has been able to recruit with two consecutive Top 25 classes, but his 11-12 record shows that it has not translated into wins. Expect Pittsburgh's administration to take a lesson from Rutgers and give him more time to develop a winning program, but don't be surprised if there are cries of "Dave must go" if he doesn't show early improvement. This season Wannstedt is dealing with the loss of key personnel. QB Tyler Palko is now gone, and Wannstedt has spent time deciding between junior Bill Stull and true freshman Pat Bostick as signal caller. Regardless of which one wins the job, they will be without the services of All-Big East receiver Derek Kinder who tore his right ACL during practice. Also out is true freshman OL Chris Jacobson who was competing for a starting job before dislocating his kneecap. Pitt's first game is Saturday at 6:00PM against Eastern Michigan.
Possibly the most threatened coach in the Big East is Syracuse's Greg Robinson. The Orange managed to win 4 games last season, but still ended in a tie for last place with UConn. Some fans must already be wishing for the return of Paul Pasqualoni. QB Perry Paterson is gone, and Robinson has decided to go with Sophomore Andrew Robinson, known as "A-Rob". Robinson will get to work with WR Taj Smith who missed most of last season due to injuries as well as TE Tom Ferron. Syracuse's biggest problems may be on defense which had to replace all their starting linebackers. Syracuse opens the season against Washington next Friday at 8:00PM on ESPN.
Rounding out the opening week schedule, on Saturday UConn travels to Duke, USF hosts Elon, and West Virginia hosts Western Michigan. The West Virginia contest at 3:30PM will be the Big East game of the week and should be available on local cable systems. Check TV listings.
Profiles for South Florida, West Virginia and UConn will be on the next Friday Night Writes.
The opinions in this article are those of the author. If you think the author was too drunk while writing this, feel free to express your own opinions on the message boards.