The Big Ten's addition of Rutgers has generally been met with a "WTF" reaction by football fans. And from a football perspective, that's not an unreasonable opinion. Sure, Rutgers played in the first college football game in 1869, and since the Scarlet Knights split a two game series with Princeton, the only other team in college football, arguably Rutgers was the first national champion. For the next 130 years, Rutgers football was an afterthought, qualifying for only one bowl, the 1978 Garden State Bowl played just 35 miles away at the Meadowlands.
Greg Schiano finally got Rutgers football on the map by leading the Knights to six bowl games in seven years. After Schiano left to coach Tampa Bay, Rutgers promoted offensive coodinator Kyle Flood to head coach in 2012. In 2013, Rutgers finished 6-7, with the Knights' victories coming against opponents that combined to go 14-46 last season. This season, the Big Ten welcomes Rutgers with the Nebraska treatment. Starting with Nebraska and the rest of the Big Ten's east division (Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, and Penn State), Rutgers also gets Wisconsin as their other opponent from the west division. No wonder they're picked to finish last in the east division this season.
If that perception is going to be proved wrong, Rutgers will need to make a big jump in 2014, and the most likely player to lead the charge is junior running back Paul James (6'0" 210 pounds). Despite missing four games in the middle of the season with a lower leg injury, James led Rutgers with 881 yards rushing and nine touchdowns. The former walk-on exploded at the start of last season, rushing for 573 yards and six touchdowns in Rutgers' first four games of 2013, earning him first team all-AAC honors. Injuries hampered him the rest of the season and even kept him out of most of spring practice. If James isn't healthy, sophomore Justin Goodwin (6'0" 180 pounds) is a fairly capable backup. He rushed for 521 yards and five touchdowns last season. Against SMU, Goodwin accounted for 222 total yards and three touchdowns. Sophomore Desmon Peoples (5'8" 175 pounds) had a huge spring and is in line for more playing time, if he can figure out pass protection. Senior Savon Huggins (6'0" 200 pounds) started the first game last season and rushed for 286 yards, but seems headed towards a redshirt year because the shoulder and wrist injuries that kept him out in the spring still aren't healed.
Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova is a bit of an enigma in New Jersey. Nova started the final four games for Rutgers as a true freshman in 2011, but lost his starting job late last season after 23 consecutive starts. He started 2013 by throwing 13 touchdown passes and five interceptions in the first five games, but only five touchdowns and ten interceptions in the next five. This spring, Rutgers opened the quarterback competition up and while Nova received praise for his work this spring with new offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen, he's still listed as co-#1 with junior Mike Bimonte (6'4" 225 pounds) and redshirt freshman Chris Laviano (6'3" 215 pounds). Neither Bimonte nor Laviano have taken a snap in a college game, so it'll be interesting to see who eventually starts. You'd think it would clearly be Nova, but the fact that he hasn't edged out the other two (who haven't played) is clearly a warning sign.
Last year's leading receiver, tight end Tyler Kroft (6'6" 240 pounds) returns for his senior season after catching 43 passes for 573 yards and four touchdowns. But new starters will take over at receiver. Sophomore Ruhann Peele (6'1" 185 pounds) split time between receiver and cornerback as a freshman, but sill managed to catch 28 passes for 281 yards and a touchdown. The potential breakout player is junior Leonte Carroo (6'1" 200 pounds) who caught 28 passes for 478 yards and nine touchdowns last season. The other returning receivers combined to catch nine last season, so you get an idea of what kind of impact Carroo can make when he's healthy. Problem is that a head injury held him out for the final three games of last season and all of spring practice. He's cleared for preseason practice. Sophomore Andre Patton (6'4" 195 pounds) only caught three passes for 49 yards and a touchdown last season, but opened preseason practice atop the depth chart ahead of Peele.
All five starting offensive linemen return for Rutgers, though that may not necessarily be a good thing. Rutgers ranked 101st nationally in rushing and 102nd nationally in sacks allowed. But experience means they should be better. Two key players to keep an eye on are senior center Betim Bujari (6'4" 295 pounds), a second team all-AAC honoree last season, and senior left guard Kaleb Johnson (6'4" 305 pounds). A three-year starter, Johnson briefly considered declaring for the NFL draft after last season, but decided to return after receiving his draft report.
Seven starters return for a Rutgers defense that ranked 80th nationally in scoring defense and 73rd in total defense, thanks to a green secondary. Up front, the Knights have depended on an undersized but athletic defensive line that's been effective against Big East/American Athletic Conference competition...but now they have to deal with Big Ten offenses. The defensive line returns two starters in junior defensive tackle Darius Hamilton (6'4" 260 pounds; I told you they were undersized) and junior defensive end Djwany Mera (6'4" 260 pounds). Hamilton, who led Rutgers in tackles for loss as a sophomore last season, has talked about the need to add size this offseason.
Sophomore Steve Longa (6'1" 220 pounds) was named a freshman all-American last season for leading Rutgers with 123 tackles. This year, new defensive coordinator Joe Rossi is having Longa swap positions with senior Kevin Snyder (6'3" 235 pounds). Rossi's thought is that the bigger Snyder is a better fit for the middle linebacker spot, and that Longa's athleticism fits better on the weakside. It's not like either player was struggling in their previous role; Snyder's 96 tackles were second on the Knights' roster. Junior strongside linebacker Quentin Gause (6'1" 220 pounds) played quite a bit last season while Jamal Merrell was injured; his 53 tackles was fourth on the team and his 7.5 tackles for loss led Rutgers last season.
Last season, Rutgers suffered through a rebuilding season in the secondary as four of their top five defensive backs from 2012 were playing on Sundays in the NFL. The one guy who was back, strong safety Lorenzo Waters (6'0" 205 pounds) is back again for his senior season after a 62 tackle season in 2013. Cornerback was a revolving door last season as injuries and player departures meant that by season end, both starting corners were true freshmen. Nadir Barnwell (5'11" 190 pounds) and Anthony Cioffi (6'0" 180 pounds) were thrown into the fire...and frequently roasted as the Knights allowed a school record 4,058 passing yards. They should be much better with a full offseason to get ready to play at this level both physically and mentally.
It'll be tough for Rutgers to make it to a fourth straight bowl game in 2014, as the non-conference schedule features games against Washington State and Navy. Their strength of schedule is ranked the nineteenth toughest by Phil Steele, which means that Rutgers will need to pull off more than a few surprises in their first season in the Big Ten to be able to keep the season going beyond November. That'll inevitably resurrect the old doubts about why Rutgers was invited to join the Big Ten, but those are the wrong concerns. The Big Ten's motivation in inviting Rutgers has much less to do with bringing Rutgers to Ann Arbor and Columbus than it does in bringing Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State, and Wisconsin into the largest media market in the United States. And for those of you who obsess about recruiting, it's also worthwhile to note that New Jersey ranks eighth in the number of Rivals 250 players. (Maryland is sixth, in case you are curious.)