Scarlet Knights aiming high in 2004

Rutgers strong safety Jarvis Johnson stole the show at the Big East Conference media day in late July, sporting a fire-engine red, double-breasted suit with pinstripes. His teeth sparkled in gold and his shoes were spit-shined to perfection.

"Got to look the part," said Johnson, the Scarlet Knights' leading returning tackler. "You want people to notice."

Johnson and Rutgers are hard to miss these days. The Scarlet Knights are nearly as spiffy as his get-up after coming off the fourth-biggest turnaround in college football last season. They posted a 5-7 record in 2003 after a 1-11 mark a year earlier.

Hard as it might be to believe, expectations are high in New Brunswick -- and not just by Rutgers standards. People really think these guys can win. Maybe even a lot.

"This ain't the same old Rutgers," said Johnson, one of 27 players from Florida on the roster. "Get ready."

If this is to be a breakthrough season for the Scarlet Knights, they'll need to pass an early test on Saturday when they play host to Michigan State (ABC, 3:30 ET) in the season opener at Rutgers Stadium. The national cameras will catch every minute of it.

This is a game fourth-year coach Greg Schiano needs for a number of reasons, not the least of which is putting a stamp on the legitimacy of a program that was left for dead when he left a cushy defensive coordinator's job at Miami to take over in 2001.

Michigan State has some talent back from last year's 8-5 Alamo Bowl team, but is beatable.

"It's certainly a great opportunity for the nation to see us," said Schiano, the youngest coach in Division I-A at 38. "It's a great opportunity to show what we've been doing with our program. But it's one of 11."

Schiano created a buzz during his rookie season by throwing caution to the wind and playing 14 true freshmen. Those players are now seniors and they're part of a team that returns 17 starters, including nine from an offense that amassed 4,423 yards and 329 points -- second-best all-time at the school -- under visionary coordinator Craig Ver Steeg.

Junior quarterback Ryan Hart set school marks for completions, attempts and yards (234-of-398 for 2,714 yards with 15 touchdowns). He is the centerpiece of a program that hasn't had a winning season since 1992, a program that's been to just one bowl game all-time, a program that's reaping the benefits of a $13 million upgrade to its practice facilities.

Schiano has successfully built a fence around New Jersey that's kept the local products in state, as evidenced by 13 all-state signees in 2001 and a total of 70 Jersey kids on the current roster. Billboards plugging "The State University" are everywhere. The Rutgers name even appears on billboards in Florida.

On Saturday, Schiano's team gets a three-hour infomercial in front of the nation.

"It'll be just another effort to show the young men of our state and nationally that Rutgers is a viable choice," Schiano said. "I'm not naïve. I know we won't keep all of them, but we have to keep the right Jersey players at home, the ones who can help us win a championship."

Joe Bendel covers the Big East for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.