Rutgers isn’t very good this season. This is not a big surprise. Nobody expected Rutgers to compete for anything more than maybe a mid-December bowl, and historically, Rutgers is usually bad.
After a win over Texas State, Rutgers was blasted by Ohio State. That isn’t a surprise either. Rutgers’ struggles with Ohio State have been well-documented on this website.
But after back-to-back blowouts at the hands of [adjusts glasses], uh, Kansas and Buffalo, we might be reaching a new low in Rutgers football. Which, given the history of Rutgers football, is really saying something.
Even by Rutgers standards, this team looks terrible.
Rutgers is 118th out of 130 teams in S&P+ right now. If that held up for the full season, that would be their worst ranking ... ever.
And that’s saying something, because recent Rutgers squads are no strangers to low S&P+ rankings. Rutgers hasn’t even finished in the top half of the country since 2011 (they were 53rd), or in the top 100 since 2013, when they finished 93rd.
The Scarlet Knights’ S&P+ rating right now is -16.9, meaning they’d be roughly 17-point underdogs against an average FBS team on a neutral field. That’s really bad, but it isn’t their worst mark ever.
In fact, Rutgers has produced 10 teams with worse ratings, bottoming out with the 1956 squad that earned a -20.8 rating. That team went 3-7, losing games to teams like Princeton, Colgate, Columbia, and Delaware. So that Kansas blowout is bad, but probably not quite that bad.
The bulk of the worst modern-era Rutgers squads were in the 1950s and 1960s, but there are some recent examples too.
In 2002, Rutgers went 1-11 and finished 104th out of 117th in S&P+. That was Greg Schiano’s second season at the helm. His first one didn’t go much better. Rutgers went 2-10 the year before.
The 1997 Rutgers squad went 0-11 and finished with a Simple Ratings Score of -22.06, the worst in Rutgers history, according to Sports-Reference. They gave up over 45 points a game. That squad finished 109th out of 112 teams in S&P+, per Bill Connelly’s calculations.
So there probably have been a few Rutgers squads worse than this year’s edition, but not too many — and none of those old teams had the benefit of Big Ten membership.
And the 2018 Scarlet Knights, at least so far, don’t look that far off the horrible late-’90s squads.
Oh, and this was supposed to be the easy part of the schedule.
Nobody expected Rutgers to beat Ohio State, but even Rutgers skeptics figured they would be competitive against Kansas, one of the worst power conference programs of the last decade, and Buffalo. Instead, they got blown out.
The Scarlet Knights have a couple potentially winnable conference games, but they also have to play Wisconsin, Maryland, Northwestern, Michigan, Michigan State, and Penn State. Cracking three wins seems unlikely (we give them an 82 percent chance of finishing with two wins or less), and ruthless blowouts at the hands of Michigan and Penn State could push their metrics even lower.
Is it possible the math is wrong here? I asked some experts.
I asked Aaron Breitman, longtime Rutgers fan and manager of our excellent Rutgers blog, On The Banks, what he thought. Is this Rutgers team that bad?
Rutgers had seasons of 0-11, 1-10, 2-9 during my time as a student between 1996-1999. This season has been the worst in the sense of the expectations and hope for this team has far exceeded teams like the late-‘90s, 2002, 2016.
Rutgers has suffered plenty of blowout losses through the years, but I called losing by 41 to Kansas the worst loss in program history. The back-to-back blowouts to Kansas and Buffalo are a new lowpoint.
Keith Sargeant of NJ.Com, who has been covering Rutgers since 2001, says it’s hard to say exactly how bad Rutgers is compared to other squads, but ...
It certainly looks like 2002 is a good comparable. That was Schiano’s second season; this is Ash’s third year. Both faced a massive rebuilding job, but 1-11 would clearly be a sign of regression after the team showed some signs of improvement by winning three Big Ten games and finishing 4-8 in Year 2. Historically speaking, the 1997 team was about as bad as any in Rutgers’ modern history.
At the very least, we’re looking at the worst Rutgers team in more than two decades. And given that Rutgers was actually supposed to be at least competitive this year, unlike in 2002 or 1997, that might sting even more than those lopsided defeats.
Why is Rutgers so dang bad, and could they get better?
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why Ohio State steamrolled Rutgers. The Buckeyes have far better players, and that’ll be true for Michigan, Penn State, and the other elite programs in the Big Ten. That will make any rebuilding job much more difficult.
But this year has other challenges beyond recruiting. Right now, the Scarlet Knights have a minus-7 turnover margin, the second -worst mark in the country. ESPN rates their offense as the least efficient in the entire country, and their defense, at 115th, isn’t that much better. They convert only about 32 percent of their third downs. They stink at virtually every offensive metric.
Part of that stems from a revolving door of offensive coordinators. Part of that is because they’ve been starting a true freshman, Artur Sitkowski, who has struggled badly (one touchdown against seven interceptions, 46.2 percent completions). Sitkowski was a blue-chip QB recruit who committed to Miami, only to struggle his senior year of high school, diminishing his profile a bit. He’s clearly raw, but also has undeniable upside, and is exactly the kind of QB it makes sense for Rutgers to try to develop. But behind a leaky line and surrounded by underclassmen at the skill positions, he’s going to struggle.
If Sitkowski can become the kind of quarterback Miami thought he might be, and if intriguing players like running back Raheem Blackshear, wideout Bo Melton, tackle Micah Clark, and others mature and grow, they could have a decent offense in a year or two. But that’s also a lot of ifs, and the games aren’t getting any easier.
There are plenty of reasons why Rutgers has historically struggled.
Their path to success in the Big Ten is steep, to say the least. But this far into the Ash era and into the Big Ten era, I’m not sure anybody thought it was going to be this bad. And it just might (somehow) get worse before it gets better.