First-year Rutgers coach Chris Ash knows his program has a long way to go before it’s considered one of the best in the Big Ten East -- but he’s confident it will get there eventually.
"We have all the key ingredients needed to build upon a great foundation, to build upon this season and future seasons, to be one of those better Big Ten teams that people don’t want to play each Saturday," he said last month.
But, this season, Ash and the Scarlet Knights will certainly have their work cut out for them. Ash inherits one of the nation’s worst defenses, statistically, from last season and he loses one of the league's most talented players in wide receiver Leonte Carroo.
Still, there is some reason for optimism -- especially regarding the future. Rutgers' recruiting class is now ranked No. 25 nationally, ahead of teams like Michigan State and TCU. And there are several talented players, like running backs Josh Hicks and Robert Martin, who will return in 2017.
But how will Rutgers fare in 2016? And can Ash, Ohio State’s former defensive coordinator, start off his head coaching career with a bowl berth? Here’s a preview of the upcoming season:
2015 record: 4-8 (1-7 Big Ten)
Key returners: QB Chris Laviano, RB Martin, RB Hicks, WR Janarion Grant, WR Andre Patton, OL Chris Muller, DL Quanzell Lambert, DL Darius Hamilton, DL Julian Pinnix-Odrick, DB Isaiah Wharton, DB Anthony Cioffi
Instant impact player: Quarterback Zach Allen. No, the TCU graduate transfer is not the starting quarterback for the opener against Washington. (That would be Laviano.) But Allen has already pushed Laviano, with Ash going so far as to say early in camp that Allen held the edge. If Laviano struggles, Allen could replace him. And, even if Laviano is perfect, Allen is still just a play away from lining up under center. He’s a dual-threat who fits well into Drew Mehringer's power spread scheme.
Key stat: 462. That’s how many yards, on average, Rutgers allowed in each game last season. That was good for a No. 111 national ranking in total yards allowed; in the Big Ten, only Indiana finished with a worse ranking. No Power-5 team allowed more yards per passing attempt (9.02 yards), and only eight Power-5 teams allowed more yards per rush (5.05 yards). Needless to say, there were a lot of problems with the defense in 2015.
Most brutal stretch: First three games of the conference season. Rutgers opens the Big Ten season with Iowa at home, then heads to Ohio State before returning to Piscataway, N.J., to face Michigan. So not only do the Knights have to deal with the East’s two best teams, but they also have to worry about the defending West champs. If Rutgers can grab even one win here, it would be huge. But the Knights will be big underdogs in all three contests.
Worst-case scenario: The defense shows moderate progress under Ash, but the offense sputters. The absence of Carroo has a lingering effect on the passing offense, and Laviano is exposed against better defenses. Rutgers grabs two wins during the non-conference slate, but it opens the conference schedule with three straight double-digit losses. It wins only one Big Ten game and finishes with three wins. There’s a lot to fix for 2017.
Best-case scenario: Ash and his staff completely turn this defense around, as it finishes near the middle-of-the-pack in the Big Ten. Martin leads the rushing attack and earns All-B1G honors, and Grant earns All-America honors as a returner. Rutgers becomes bowl eligible after upsetting Penn State, then celebrates after upending rival Maryland. The future looks bright for Rutgers.