The Scarlet Knights look for sustained success as a Power 5 team after a eight-win Big Ten debut last season
It’s not as if Rutgers has ever had any realistic expectations to be one of the premiere college football programs in the country, but joining the Big Ten amplifies everything for everyone involved. Both players and coaches are under immense scrutiny to not only perform at the highest level, but exceed expectations en route to soaring heights for their programs.
Greg Schiano brought Rutgers football back into the national spotlight in 2006, in what could be one of the most wild college football seasons in history, finishing 11-2 and beating Kansas State in a January bowl game. However since that memorable season the program has fallen back into mediocrity, going just 57-42 over the past eight years.
One thing Schiano brought back to the Scarlet Knights was a respect factor. A team that was once considered the worst program in all of college football, Schiano’s Knights were ranked in the preseason Top 25 in 2006, the first time in 30 years the program had seen a number next to their name.
But Schiano’s success with a once-moribund program didn’t go unnoticed, as he left following the 2011 season for the NFL as the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Given what Schiano helped build, Rutgers felt it best to keep both structure and continuity in the program and decided to hire within by promoting longtime assistant coach Kyle Flood.
Flood, who has been with the program since 2005, saw immediate success in 2012, finishing 9-4 and tied for first in the then Big East Conference, ultimately losing in the Russell Athletic Bowl. The 2013 season was a rude awakening from Flood’s honeymoon campaign, as the Scarlet Knights finished below .500 at 6-7, missing out on a bowl game and landing near the bottom of the brand-new American Athletic Conference.
Last season, Rutgers’ debut in the Big Ten was viewed as both a surprise and a success, not only to those close to the program, but outside as well. A team that many national pundits expected to finish with double-digit losses, tallied an eight-win season. Their performance in Big Ten games was unimpressive, as all five losses in 2014 coming at the hands of conference foes, including blowout defeats against perennial powers Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Nebraska.
The Scarlet Knights’ first season in Big Ten play wasn’t all bad, however, as it also included victory over Michigan at home, and a nail-biting loss to Penn State early in the season in Happy Valley. Even with the mixed results, Rutgers and Flood put belief in a fan base that was otherwise skeptical about the team’s future success in a Power 5 conference.
The issue at hand is whether Flood can sustain and build on the success the program saw in year one as members of the Big Ten. Especially considering that Ohio State is the reigning national champion, and Michigan State appears to be knocking on the door of being a part of the College Football Playoff by season’s end. Not only is competition ramping up at a rapid pace in the conference, but recruiting also is expected to be at its most competitive moving forward with Jim Harbaugh returning to Michigan to go toe-to-toe with the likes of the Buckeyes’ Urban Meyer and the Nittany Lions’ James Franklin.
Flood’s career 23-16 record, while nothing to be overly ashamed about, isn’t anything to be comfortable with either. His Scarlet Knights have a difficult schedule in 2015, with major road tests against the likes of Penn State early and then Wisconsin and Michigan in back-to-back in weeks to end October and open November.
One of Flood’s biggest marks against him is that while he can beat quality football teams, he loses, and sometimes in embarrassing fashion, to very bad football teams. In just his second year in 2013, he saw his team lose five of its final seven games after beginning the season 4-1, and only two of the teams the Scarlet Knights lost to that year finished their seasons with winning records. If Flood continues this discouraging trend, the whispers about his job security that are already circulating around Piscataway are only going to get louder with the pressure of competing in a power conference in a major television market hanging over the program’s head.
The 2015 season likely won’t be the battle axe that comes down on Flood’s head unless it’s an absolute abomination. If it’s anywhere other than on the field that’ll cost Flood his job, it’ll be in recruiting. According to 247Sports.com’s Composite Rankings, Rutgers had the 24th overall recruiting class in the country in 2012; which would’ve been mostly credited to Schiano prior to his departure to the NFL.
In the three full years Flood has been the head coach, the program’s performance has steadily declined in the rankings, coming in at 50th (2013), 53rd (2014), and 55th during the 2015 cycle. If there’s any sort of silver lining from those gaudy numbers, it’s that Rutgers currently is on pace for a major improvement, as they currently sit 43rd in the country with National Signing Day still seven months away.
With another eight-win campaign for the Scarlet Knights, and even just two or three top recruits committing to the future of the program, Flood could begin to build what both fans and boosters are looking for — an annual Big Ten powerhouse.
While this upcoming season isn’t likely to be the be-all-end-all for Flood as the head coach, it’s certainly a crucial season. If there was a meter to gauge his hot seat ranking, one could argue that it’s a firm, very firm 6/10. That rating is purely contingent upon his success during the 2015 campaign.
Rutgers isn’t expected to dominate Big Ten competition, being that the Scarlet Knights are still basically playing with a roster built to compete in the AAC. But a few upset victories could really propel Flood and this program to new heights in a Power 5 conference. A few upset losses, however, and Flood could be in search of new employment, for better or worse. None of us will know until the games are played, but there’s reason for concern in the birthplace of college football, and the time is now for Flood to earn himself some job security.
— Written by Chris Dougherty, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Dougherty also serves as a National Recruiting Analyst for 247Sports.com and has written for other sites, including FanSided.com and Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter @warontheweekend.