By Kristian R. Dyer
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For the first time since 1869 – OK, OK, for the first time in the past six years, Rutgers might finally be reaching their potential among the best teams in college football.
It has been a long and rocky road to this point for the Scarlet Knights, perhaps the most snake-bitten team in college football history. Cubs fans in Chicago might like to lament on their woes but without a doubt, Rutgers is the one team in all of sports that has always found a way to break the hearts of their most seasoned and savvy fans. The embodiment of futility for so many years, this was a program that before 2005 had just one bowl game appearance and that was a laughingstock wherever they played. The recent rise of Rutgers under former head coach Greg Schiano has been well-documented but now with his departure, the program is ready to take another step forward.
Saturday night’s 35-26 win over Arkansas in the heart of SEC country is a bold statement for Rutgers, even as the Razorbacks continue their nightmarish season. But the 4-0 start, their best since 2006, shows that this team can take a dramatic step forward.
When Schiano left for the NFL, he didn’t leave the cupboards dry with talent and there are playmakers on both sides of the ball with some serious speed at the playmaker positions. Many of these are players who tasted the lows of 2010, the season when Rutgers went 4-8 and saw teammate Eric LeGrand crumple to turf of MetLife Stadium, paralyzed from the neck down. It was also many of these same players who rebounded the next year to return Rutgers to a bowl game in 2011 with a win over Iowa State. And now with a consensus top 25 recruiting class on campus, the Scarlet Knights are talented and deep.
This, and not that 2006 season that is still the stuff of myths and legends around Piscataway, could be the golden era of Rutgers football.
For in first-year head coach Kyle Flood, Rutgers has a man raised in the tradition of Schiano who brings a smile and affability that their old coach never had. Flood has surrounded himself with competent coordinators and coaches, something that the control freak Schiano never did, and he has young talent two and three players deep at nearly every position. Now with a fan base in place, something that wasn’t really the case in 2006, there is the opportunity for him to win and start winning big.
There is no West Virginia in the Big East anymore, gone in conference realignment, and the biggest thorn in the side of Rutgers dreams of winning the BCS is gone. Here and now is the very really and legitimate opportunity for Rutgers to turn 4-0 into five wins in two weeks when they host UConn and then six and seven – and perhaps into the program’s first ever Big East title.
Because of 2006, the expectation is there for Rutgers to rise again. That win over Louisville six years ago set the program on the map but the subsequent step back that the Scarlet Knights took since then made Rutgers an also-ran in the watered down Big East. But in the top 25 for the first time since 2009, Rutgers again can be that program.
After all, they are uniquely situated in the deep talent pool of New Jersey and in recent years, the “State of Rutgers” that Schiano once envisioned has become a reality. More young talent is staying in-state than ever before, building a program on the rich recruiting turf of the Garden State. With Penn State’s struggles to the west and the ups and downs of Temple in Philadelphia, Syracuse now a shell of its former self and instability at UConn and Boston College, the Scarlet Knights can be the program of note in the tri-state area.
The recruiting wins this year will be as big as big for Rutgers as the wins on the field, but Flood can make his program an easy sell to top recruits with some more wins like the one on Saturday night. Like they had to in 2006, Rutgers played without fear in a difficult, frothy and teeming environment and walked away with a win. That season ended 11-2 and with a dominant win in a third-tier bowl game.
This season could end with Rutgers in its first BCS bowl game, finally starting that golden era of Rutgers football. And to think, only 143 years in the making.
Kristian R. Dyer covers the NFL and college football for Metro New York and contributes to Yahoo! Sports as well as WFAN. He can be followed on Twitter @KristianRDyer.
Just how far will Rutgers ride this wave? Be heard in the comments below…