Throughout the offseason expansion talk, Rutgers appeared as the most likely candidate from the Big East to make a jump to the Big Ten. The question seemed a matter of when, not if.
There are more pressing questions now, such as: When will the Scarlet Knights' level of play match their ambitions? When will Rutgers become more than a program in a desirable market? When will it become a Big East power?
You never want to overreact to a small stretch of games early in the season. Yet it's hard to ignore how poorly Rutgers has performed this year, highlighted by Saturday's embarrassing 17-14 homecoming loss to Tulane. Greg Schiano's team also lost to a fractured North Carolina team at home and has had trouble doing much of anything offensively all year.
This, however, is about more than just this season. Rutgers likes to tout that it is one of only a handful of schools with a current streak of at least four straight bowl wins. But examine the record more closely, and the program has failed to deliver much of a statement.
Those four bowl wins have come against Kansas State (final record: 7-6), Ball State, NC State (6-7) and Central Florida. The Scarlet Knights' record in the Big East the past three years is just 11-10, and they haven't notched any nonconference victories of note. Their continued postseason streak owes a huge favor to incredibly weak out-of-league schedules.
So much more was expected after a banner 2006 season, when Rutgers won 11 games and finished No. 12 in the country. Why hasn't the program been able to match those heights?
"Maybe that was a little ahead of schedule for where we are as a program," Schiano said Monday of his team's 2006 breakthrough. "I look at it as a long process.
"The people we're chasing are not sitting targets. They're all working hard and investing money in their programs and getting better. We're getting better, too. Ultimately, we're going to reach where we set out to reach. Obviously, the immediate results are disappointing the last two weeks, but I do see a lot of signs of a football team that will be very, very good here in the future."
Schiano said that the fruits of that 2006 season paid off in recruiting about a year or two later, and that many of the current team's better players are in Piscataway as a result. But they're still young. Schiano was prepared for some growing pains in 2010; he mentioned often in the spring that 62 of his 85 scholarship players had three or more years of eligibility remaining.
Schiano also points out that Rutgers has seen juniors leave school a year early and become first-round NFL draft picks the past three years: Ray Rice in 2008, Kenny Britt in 2009 and Anthony Davis this past spring.
"That compounds the effect," Schiano said.
It's no surprise that all three of those early draft entrants came from the offensive side of the ball. The Scarlet Knights have had trouble finding replacements for each of those star players, and the offense is young and ineffective as a result. Tom Savage has gone through a sophomore slump and has been injured, and Schiano had to turn to a true freshman quarterback (Chas Dodd) for help in the second straight season. One of Dodd's biggest pass plays on Saturday was to another true freshman, receiver Jeremy Deering. Meanwhile, sophomore Mohamed Sanu remains the best overall player on the team and is being asked to carry a heavy offensive load at quarterback and receiver.
Rutgers needs to turn things around in time for this week's Big East opener against Connecticut, but the team has done it before. In 2008, the Scarlet Knights got off to a miserable 1-5 start before closing with eight straight wins and playing as well as anybody in the league. Last year, they were blown out 47-15 by Cincinnati in the opener but rebounded to win nine games. The younger players figure to improve, and the defense and special teams are as stout as any in the Big East.
"That's why I'm excited," Schiano said. "After this current loss, I'm certainly disappointed but not discouraged."
Still, there's a sense that this program is underachieving. Schiano faced a serious rebuilding project, to be sure, but he's now in his 10th year at the helm. He has the resources and facilities to compete, including a newly expanded Rutgers Stadium. The program has had solid recruiting classes, including the Big East's top-rated class in 2009, according to ESPN's Scouts Inc.
If Cincinnati can break through and go to two straight BCS games, why can't Rutgers? That's becoming a question of if, not when.