By Kristian Dyer
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FLORHAM PARK, N.J. – The biggest game of the football calendar in the Tri-State Area this weekend won’t be on Sunday afternoon at MetLife Stadium when the Giants face the Browns, or even the next night when the Jets host the Texans.
It will be Saturday at noon at High Point Solutions Stadium, when No. 21 Rutgers takes on UConn.
The game itself is important for both sides, with a win not only preserving a spotless start for 4-0 Rutgers, but giving credence to a legitimate shot at a Big East title and a BCS berth. The Huskies are off to a 3-2 start with an outstanding defense carrying the load for an anemic offense, and they need the win to help their rocky start to the season. But for the Scarlet Knights, this game could mean everything.
It could mean more than just their fifth win of the season, or even their first loss.
Already off to their best start since the magical 2006 season — the year when Rutgers finished 11-2 and won the first bowl game in program history — the Scarlet Knights need this hot start to become credible again. This is a conference, after all, that is losing Pittsburgh and Syracuse following this year. Those are perhaps no great losses on the football field, but the fact that two programs that have been at the bottom of the Big East over the past few years are stepping up to the ACC is an affront to the most ardent of Rutgers fans.
Winning the Big East, or at least coming close this season, would be a step towards getting out of a conference that is Big East in name only. The hodgepodge of programs that currently comprise the Big East won’t do anything substantial to raise the level of play or the prestige of the Scarlet Knights, and it won’t help them consistently challenge for a national championship, which is their stated goal.
Rutgers needs to win the Big East this year to get out of the Big East.
It makes sense that the ACC or even the Big Ten should have interest in the school. There has been a renaissance of sorts under athletic director Tim Pernetti, who in his 43 months at the school has been a tireless fundraiser and advocate for the athletic department during trying economic times. His stock rose in the hours after Greg Schiano left the program, days before signing day, when Pernetti’s vision and boldness helped keep one of the nation’s top recruiting classes together. But after hiring a charismatic head coach in Kyle Flood to replace Schiano, Pernetti has set about to turn not only Rutgers football into a nationally-ranked program, but other sports as well.
The men’s basketball program, long a doormat in the tough Big East, should legitimately challenge for a spot in the NCAA Tournament or a berth in the NIT this year, while the women’s program continues to excel and maintain a high ranking.
Olympic sports such as the soccer programs are on the rise and among the best in the conference; the same goes with wrestling. The athletic department across the board is enjoying success, appealing to any conference, but the success of the football team will be what carries the university to a better conference.
With every win Flood and his team puts together, they attract not just alumni and student supporters, but also the eyes and ears of the New York City market.
For it will be the “Big Apple” that Rutgers must conquer this year, and in doing so they will bring the nation’s largest audience to the ACC or the Big Ten. New York loves a winner, and if that college in Central Jersey can begin to win, there could be Scarlet fever sweeping through Manhattan.
And with that will come interest from Madison Avenue and millions of television sets.
Face it, there is no local college football program for fans to get behind in this area. Rutgers can be an affordable option for fans wishing to go to a game on the weekend, and something worth getting behind from the comfort of their sofas on Saturday afternoons. With local kids playing for the local area, there is an authentic appeal to New Yorkers and New Jerseyans alike to support the purity of sports best found in places like Rutgers.
It is the one team in the area, after all, that most represents the culture and flavor of New York and New Jersey.
Flood was born and raised in New York City and went to college locally, and sometimes a hint of his Queens accent pops out when he talks fast. Of the players on the roster, 51 were grown in the Garden State and another eight came from the New York City area or the surrounding suburbs, including Long Island. The rest come from Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Florida — and places in between.
But what they do on Saturday can elevate Rutgers on to the national platform, and turn the dreams of a switch to a relevant conference into reality. And they’ll do it just one win at a time.
Kristian R. Dyer can be followed on Twitter here.
Do you see Rutgers eventually migrating to the Big Ten or the ACC, or will they remain in the Big East for years to come? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below…