PISCATAWAY, N.J. (AP) — If Greg Schiano's first year back at Rutgers was any indication, the Scarlet Knights are certainly no longer the worst football team in the Big Ten Conference.
To the surprise of many, Rutgers posted a 3-6 record playing a conference-only schedule in a 2020 season delayed and shortened by the pandemic.
The three wins matched the university's total in the previous two seasons combined. The season-opening victory over Michigan State snapped a 21-game losing streak in the league dating to 2017.
Expectations are higher this season with Schiano returning 20 starters, including all 11 on offense. He even has his punter, placekicker and long snapper back. The NCAA decision allowing last season to not count against a player's eligibility certainly helped.
It all has some fans believing Rutgers can get back to a bowl game for the first time since 2014, when they played in the Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit with Kyle Flood as coach.
“Certainly winning some games after not having won very many built their confidence and they started to believe,” Schiano said of his players. “You know what, we belong in this league and as I told them, and you guys, it’s just going to become more and more evident each and every year.”
Players do not stray from Schiano's script in interviews.
Defensive lineman Mike Tverdov said the Scarlet Knights' focus is on the present, working hard and being prepared. They all throw in the familiar “keep chopping” phrase.
“We don’t want to compete," Tverdov said. “We want to win every single game. That’s something that a lot of people don’t understand. Our approach to every game is we're not going in there to compete or come close. We want to go in there to win at all costs.”
BOWL HOPES Postseason games were the norm in the second half of Schiano's first stint at Rutgers (2001-11). Playing in the Big East Conference, Rutgers went to bowls in six of his final seven season before he left for an unsuccessful two years as coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
With Sean Gleeson returning as offensive coordinator, Rutgers will have the same man running the show in consecutive years for the first time since 2009-10. When Gleeson took over, Rutgers was ranked in the bottom three out of 130 FBS schools in total offense in all four years under former coach Chris Ash. Last season, Rutgers averaged 339.1 yards and 26.7 points.
THE GANG'S ALL HERE
Quarterback Noah Vedral came to Rutgers as a graduate transfer from Nebraska, looking for one more year to play. He emerged last year as the starter and now he is getting a second season and more with all the starters back
“I came from a small high school,” said the native of Wahoo, Nebraska. “I graduated high school with 47 kids in my class. Every now and then you’ll get a team with three seniors and none of them played a major role on offense. I’ve never had a team where every player comes back.”
Bo Melton and Aron Cruickshank not only lead the receiving corps in catches, they also give opponents something to worry about on special teams.
Cruickshank returned two kickoffs for touchdowns last season, including a 100-yarder in a second-half rally to beat Purdue. Melton, who led the team with nine touchdowns, scored on a 58-yard punt return against Ohio State after taking a cross-field lateral from Avery Young.
There are four ranked teams on the slate, starting with No. 4 Ohio State at home on Oct. 2. The other three games against ranked teams will be played on consecutive weekends in November with No. 12 Wisconsin visiting SHI Stadium on Nov. 6, while the Scarlet Knights are on the road to face No. 17 Indiana and No. 19 Penn State the next two weeks.
The season kicks off against Temple on Sept. 2. Also on the schedule are Michigan, Michigan State, Northwestern, Illinois and Maryland.
More AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25