It's less than a week now until Big Ten media days arrive at the Hilton Chicago, where 14 smiling coaches will appear, and the smell of football will permeate the air. Can you feel the excitement?
To prepare you for the festivities, we're answering three questions facing each team. It's time to look at the Rutgers Scarlet Knights. A popular pick to finish last in the East Division, Rutgers will be represented in their first visit to this event by coach Kyle Flood, senior fullback Michael Burton, junior defensive tackle Darius Hamilton and senior safety Lorenzo Waters.
1. What can Rutgers expect from Gary Nova?
Nova is the veteran quarterback who was benched late last season in favor of Chas Dodd. The move didn't work out especially well for Flood and former offensive coordinator Ron Prince, who parlayed his single season at Rutgers into a position with the Detroit Lions. The Scarlet Knights and their quarterback should fare better with new coordinator Ralph Friedgen, the former Maryland coach lured by Flood and the Big Ten move back into coaching after a three-year absence. Nova, who has started 28 games, is a proven winner. Rutgers returns the bulk of its ground game. He can provide a steady hand through this time of transition and perhaps help Flood's club exceed the low expectations.
2. Who made this schedule, anyway?
After a Thursday night opener on Aug. 28 at Washington State and an otherwise unimpressive non-conference slate, the Scarlet Knights' path gets downright treacherous. Rutgers plays the Penn State Littany Lions and the Michigan Wolverines at home to open the Big Ten, then faces trips to the Ohio State Buckeyes and the Nebraska Cornhuskers, followed by a return home to meet the Wisconsin Badgers. Mix in a finishing stretch against the Indiana Hoosiers and trips to the Michigan State Spartans and fellow newcomer Maryland Terrapins, and you're looking at a recipe for trouble. It's not easy to be the new kid, preparing for an unknown foe every week. Just ask Nebraska in 2011, which faced an equally daunting list of opponents and was twice blown out on the road. Most likely, Rutgers is in for a rude introduction to the Big Ten, maligned often as a league but still a sizable step up from the AAC.
3. What's the most realistic reason for optimism?
No doubt, it's the defense. New 35-year-old coordinator Joe Rossi, elevated from special teams coordinator, inherits a salty bunch, led up front by Hamilton, who figures to improve on his 4 1/2-sack sophomore season. Sophomore Steve Longa, strangely omitted from the Butkus Award watch list, is a tackling machine, and Kevin Snyder is solid in the middle. Waters leads a group of defensive backs that struggled last year, allowing more passing yards than any team in school history. It contributed to the ouster of coordinator Dave Cohen, but the group figures to improve this fall with more stability throughout. The Nittany Lions and quarterback Christian Hackenberg offer a nice test in Week 3.