Rutgers not satisfied with bowl eligibility

Darius Hamilton can see the impact of Rutgers’ surprise season every week -- clusters of football jerseys and sweatshirts around campus, chatter in classrooms about potential bowls and energetic home crowds.

But, even with all that and a clinched postseason berth, he’s still not satisfied.

“No, I don’t see this season as a success,” the defensive tackle said. “We want to win out. We’ve got bigger things planned, man.”

Few outsiders predicted this kind of season for the Big Ten newcomer. Most -- such as ESPN, CBS and BTN -- just assumed they’d finish last in the East. But Hamilton and his teammates were never going to be OK with just a bowl berth. They always expected more.

At six wins, this is the week when most of that preseason criticism has now whittled down to whispers. This is when the Knights could take the dais and deservedly tell the Big Ten, “Told you so.” But that’s not these upperclassmen’s style; Rutgers’ work isn’t done quite yet.

“It’s a big deal going bowling but, at the same time, we expect that,” fullback Michael Burton said. “To be honest, what people think outside of Rutgers football doesn’t really have an effect us. There’s no surprise to us we’re bowl eligible.”

Added Hamilton: “We feel good, but we have a lot left to accomplish. We’re definitely not satisfied.”

Hamilton and Burton can’t help but notice the changes around Rutgers -- a result of their success -- but they’re just raising the bar higher. The average attendance at High Point Solutions Stadium has increased 9 percent compared to last year. The 2015 recruiting class already stands at 23 commits. And three of Rutgers’ five biggest-ever crowds came in just the past nine weeks.

But that’s not enough. Rutgers has made the postseason in nine of the past 10 years -- and it hasn’t lowered expectations to meet the rising level of competition. If anything, it’s only inspired more confidence.

“When we’re consistent, we’re as good as anyone in this conference,” Burton said. “We’ve had some things that just haven’t gone our way this year. We’re only going to get better.”

It’s already safe to label this a successful season, but that doesn’t mean it’s gone smoothly at all points. Rutgers suffered a three-game losing streak during the heart of its schedule, against Ohio State, Nebraska and Wisconsin. Those games weren’t pretty, either; Rutgers lost by an average margin of 31 points.

But players intimated that was all part of the transitioning process. Rutgers “didn’t play Rutgers football,” Burton said. And those opponents were “top competition,” Hamilton said. Add those two facts together, and it’s a recipe for a lopsided score.

“The margin for error is so small here,” Burton said. “If you have one guy out of position by a yard or don’t go for the right gap, then guys like Melvin Gordon are going to be gone. They’re that good here. I think that’s one of the things that Rutgers and I have realized -- the margin for error is so small.”

Coach Kyle Flood acknowledged before the Big Ten season that first impressions are critical in football. And, so far, Rutgers has made a positive one in the conference. Fans hopped over the railings and stormed the field after a win against Michigan, it took Penn State down to the wire, and it finished strong during its nonconference slate.

Rutgers still isn’t on par with the Ohio States and Michigan States of the Big Ten; that much is obvious. But it’s done more than enough to paint a hopeful picture of the future. After all, most analysts figured Rutgers would have to take a step backward -- since it played the B1G’s hardest schedule -- before it took a step forward. Instead, it’s been moving in the right direction since Day 1.

And that’s not lost on Hamilton. The junior expected this kind of performance in Year 1 -- and he believes these six wins show Rutgers boasts even more potential than most Big Ten fans realize.

“This shows where this program can go,” he said. “It shows we’ve got the right people here and the right coaches. This program can be a great program. It’s going to take a lot of work, but I’ve never seen people more excited or happier to work.

“And when you set the bar high, when you work every day, there’s nothing you can’t achieve.”