2015 Record: 4-8 (1-7 B1G)
2015 Final S&P+ Ranking: 105
2016 Projected S&P+ Ranking: 87
Returning Starters: 9 Offense, 7 Defense
Goodbye, Kyle Flood. Hello, Chris Ash.
Rutgers cleaned house last November, firing head football coach Kyle Flood and athletic director Julie Hermann. Just two years into her tenure as AD, Hermann was a public relations nightmare, each misstep somehow worse than the one that preceded it. Flood wasn't much better in his final season with the Scarlet Knights. His 27-24 overall record after four years wasn't terrible, but controversies off the field sealed his fate -- like six players being arrested and charged with felony assault, armed robbery, criminal restraint, conspiracy, riot, and weapons possession. Not to mention the fact that Flood himself was suspended three games midseason for improper contact with one of his player's professors. I'm surprised he lasted until the end of the season.
With Flood gone, Rutgers has turned to Chris Ash, former co-defensive coordinator under Urban Meyer at Ohio State. Prior to working for the Buckeyes, Ash was the defensive coordinator for Arkansas and Wisconsin under Bret Bielema -- with a stint at Iowa State as their defensive backs coach before that. Ash is yet another addition to the Urban Meyer coaching tree that also includes Tom Herman (Houston), Charlie Strong (Texas), Dan Mullen (Mississippi State), Kyle Whittingham (Utah), and Steve Adazzio (Boston College). Will he have the same kind of success?
The good news is that the cupboard is not bare as some would have you believe. Yes, the Scarlet Knights are 2-16 vs teams with winning records the last three years, but this is also a program that notched at least six wins in each of the four years prior to 2015. They've been good enough to beat the teams they're supposed to beat. They did beat a bowl team (Indiana) last year before being obliterated by Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Michigan to the tune of a combined score of 146-33. There is work to be done, no question. But Ash has enough to work with to field a decent team in 2016. Changing the culture off the field might be the more challenging task ahead.
Plenty of potential on the offensive side of the ball
Junior quarterback Chris Laviano is back under center after a sophomore campaign that saw him throw for 2,247 yards, 16 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions. The knock against Laviano is that he folds against top tier opponents, having struggled last season during that stretch against Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Nebraska. There is also the matter of who he'll be throwing the ball to. Embattled wide receiver Leonte Carroo is gone to the NFL after leading the team last season with 39 receptions, 809 receiving yards, and 10 touchdowns. Senior wideouts Andre Patton, Janarion Grant, and Carlton Agudosi all have experience and will look to fill that void.
The offensive line has the potential to be the strength of the offense. Left tackle Keith Lumpkin departs, but nine of their top 10 offensive linemen return, including four starters. The Scarlet Knights will also benefit from having three seniors starting on the offensive line. With new offensive line coach AJ Blazek having plenty to work with as he whips this line into shape to suit a more fast-paced offense, the potential is there.
The Scarlet Knights have an impressive pair of running backs to lean on in the rushing game. Juniors Robert Martin and Josh Hicks combined for 1,489 rushing yards on 271 carries with 10 touchdowns last season. With these two backs running behind an offensive line that could be solid to good, this could make for a potent offense under new offensive coordinator Drew Mehringer.
The defense could use some help
The Scarlet Knights' defense is on a different planet from the offense. S&P+ had no love for the Rutgers defense a season ago, ranking 116th in total defense, 101st in rushing defense, and 128th in passing defense. There is good news and bad news when it comes to the rushing defense, which would be considered the "bright spot" of the defense when looking at those abysmal rankings. All three starting linebackers from last season -- who also happened to be last year's top three tacklers -- are gone, and the players stepping into those starting roles are young and inexperienced. But the defensive line is the exact opposite, with three returning starters from last season, including seniors Quanzell Lambert and Sebastian Joseph. Ash considers this unit to be the strength of the defense after a strong showing this spring from the starting four.
It was trial by fire in the secondary last year, with three freshmen starters thanks in large due to arrests that decimated the depth chart in the defensive backfield. Senior safety Anthony Cioffi returns to lead this unit after snagging four interceptions last season to go along with 45 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, and 3 pass break-ups. After allowing 58 passes of 20 yards or more last season, there is nowhere to go but up for this unit. The blame for their poor performance also lies with a lackluster pass rush, but that should be improved this season. There is no question that the Scarlet Knights have experience at this position, but whether that experience translates into improved play remains to be seen.
Can the Gophers beat the Scarlet Knights?
Rutgers is the Gophers' Homecoming opponent, so I hope so. This will be the first ever matchup between the two programs. Since joining the Big Ten, the Scarlet Knights are 2-6 on the road in conference play, so that works in the Gophers' favor. The biggest concern will be stopping Rutgers on offense. This offense returns enough firepower to be a potential problem for Big Ten defenses, depending on how well the players work within the new offensive system. The defense will need serious work to improve from last season, but Ash has the defensive background to help that unit. This is the Gophers' second consecutive opponent with a new head coach, so it is difficult to know what to expect from Rutgers at this point.
Barring disaster, don't expect a blowout. I think the Gophers will take this one, but it'll be much closer than anyone will be comfortable with.
For more on the Rutgers Scarlet Knights, check out a more in-depth preview from SB Nation's Bill Connelly.