As the Big Ten enters its first nine-game conference schedule, Land of 10 examines each school before its league opener.
ANALYSIS: The Scarlet Knights have fallen behind by scores of 24-0, 14-0 and 21-0, but have won two of coach Chris Ash’s first three games at the helm. They were unable to defend the pass against Washington in the season opener, and were gashed early by New Mexico’s option-based attack. There was plenty of improvement as the game progressed against the Lobos, and the defensive line has been a strength. Chris Laviano has struggled, and this team’s ceiling is tied directly to him being able to connect with open receivers and avoid turnovers to help a solid rushing attack.
KEY GAME: Oct. 15 vs. Illinois at High Point Solutions Stadium
Just being competitive in the first three Big Ten games would be a huge win for Rutgers. Assuming the Scarlet Knights lose the next three, Illinois starts the second half of the season, which includes winnable home games against Indiana and Penn State and road games at Minnesota and Maryland. If they don’t beat Illinois, the losses could snowball.
KEY PLAYER: Janarion Grant, WR/KR/PR/RB/QB
Given the struggles by Laviano, teams might be better off kicking the ball out of bounds if the guy can’t reach the back of the end zone against Rutgers. He has scored a touchdown three different ways and passed for one as well. He leads the teams in catches with 15, but has not scored on a reception.
FIRST MATCHUP: vs. Iowa (2-1), noon ET, Saturday, High Point Solutions Stadium, ESPN2
BEST-CASE SCENARIO: They beat Illinois, Indiana and Minnesota, which puts them at 5-5 with a chance to become bowl eligible when Penn State comes to Piscataway for a night game Nov. 19. That crowd alone could be a tremendous help for future recruiting classes.
WORST-CASE SCENARIO: The next three weeks are long and painful. Laviano can’t correct some of his throwing errors and none of the backups are ready. Rutgers fails to improve on one conference win from last season, and Ash basically needs a mulligan before 2017.
REALISTIC SCENARIO: They beat Illinois and Indiana, but not Minnesota, and are still 4-6 with flickering bowl hopes going into the Penn State game. Sweeping Penn State and Maryland is a tough ask, but keeping both games close provides more evidence that 4-8 in 2016 is a step up from 4-8 in 2015, given all of the problems from last season.