Season openers couldn't get much worse than Rutgers' against Cincinnati last season. The Scarlet Knights were demolished 47-15 at home.
Trust us, that won't happen this season. Rutgers opens Sept. 2 against FCS program Norfolk State and won't face a Big East opponent (Connecticut) until Oct. 8.
If the disastrous game against Cincinnati had a silver lining, it was the arrival of quarterback Tom Savage, who held his own when he entered the game in the second half of the blowout. He led Rutgers to eight more wins as a true freshman (backup Dom Natale was the starter in the win over Maryland), including the Scarlet Knights' fourth consecutive bowl victory.
With players such as Savage and wide receiver Mohamed Sanu coming into their own on offense along with a speedy defense, Rutgers is hoping to take the next step by winning its first Big East title. The Big East appears to be wide open, but Rutgers has one of the league's toughest conference schedules.
Here's a closer look at the Scarlet Knights.
THE SCHEME: Rutgers has focused on a grinding running game in the past, but the Scarlet Knights have opened up the offense in the past two seasons with receivers such as Kenny Britt, Tiquan Underwood and Tim Brown. Now, Rutgers has a big-time pass-catch duo in Tom Savage and Mohamed Sanu. Still, this is a unit that uses a fullback and a tight end. Rutgers occasionally ran out of the Wildcat last season with Sanu taking the snaps.
STAR POWER: Rutgers coach Greg Schiano has snagged a handful of high-profile recruits in recent seasons, but Savage could be his biggest victory. He's a strong-armed 6-foot-5, 230-pound quarterback who started from the second game of his freshman season. Don't make too big an issue of his youth, though: He has the most career starts in the Big East among quarterbacks with 11.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Only two Rutgers wide receivers had more than five catches last season. One is gone. Incoming freshman Brandon Coleman could get a look on the opposite side of Sanu. Coleman (6-6/200) was four-star prospect who could have success in the end zone.
STRONGEST AREA: The offensive foundation will be the Savage-Sanu connection. Savage passed for 2,211 yards and 14 touchdowns, but he did throw six interceptions in the final five games last season. As a sophomore, he should improve that statistic and his 52 percent completion rate. After catching 51 passes for 639 yards, Sanu must prove he can be a No. 1 receiver. He ran the ball at least 13 times in each of the last three games last season. RB Joe Martinek isn't going to remind anyone of Ray Rice and he's not going to break off huge runs. Still, he rushed for 967 yards and nine touchdowns in his first season in a major role.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: If Savage and Sanu sound like a big deal, it's with good reason. Beyond those two, the Scarlet Knights have question marks all over the offense. Savage is the only quarterback on the roster to attempt a pass in his career. The wide receivers have some talent, but inexperience is an issue there, too. After Martinek, Rutgers has a pair of injury-prone running backs. Two starters return on the line, but Rutgers lost a first-round pick and veteran off a unit that underachieved last season. Plus, one of the returning starters, Art Forst, is moving from guard to tackle.
THE SCHEME: Rutgers runs a 4-3 defense. Although the unit lost some key veterans, the Scarlet Knights expect the defense to be one of its fastest in recent seasons. Expect coaches to use that to their advantage.
STAR POWER: Jonathan Freeny must make the transition from being a pass-rush specialist to a more complete end now that George Johnson is gone. Even though Freeny came off the bench, he led Rutgers with 9.5 sacks and 10 quarterback hurries last season.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: The departure of Devin McCourty will leave a void at cornerback, but the Scarlet Knights have stocked up on defensive backs. The best may be Logan Ryan, a former four-star prospect who redshirted last season. The ninth-ranked prospect in New Jersey in 2009, Ryan will compete with Brandon Bing for a starting spot opposite David Rowe.
STRONGEST AREA: Rutgers could have a handful of All-Big East selections in its front seven. Alex Silvestro finished with 12 tackles for loss last season after returning to his natural position of end from tackle. Scott Vallone and Charlie Noonan form a solid tackle tandem. By the end of the season, the best player in front seven could be MLB Steve Beauharnais. He emerged late last season to record 19 tackles and 3.5 sacks in the last three games of the season. Rutgers led the nation in tackles for loss last season.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: The major question in the front seven is at outside linebacker, where Rutgers is hoping Manny Abreu finally delivers on his potential. Abreu was a major recruit for Rutgers in the class of 2008, but the former four-star prospect hasn't developed into a consistent starter. Rutgers will miss McCourty's leadership. McCourty played nearly every snap on defense and special teams.
Rutgers made its share of big plays in the kicking game. The Scarlet Knights blocked a Big East-best five kicks and returned three kickoffs for touchdowns. Besides being a big-hitting safety, Joe Lefeged blocked two kicks last season and returned a kickoff for a touchdown. Teddy Dellaganna is a solid punter (42.2 yards per kick). K San San Te got a lot of work (28 attempts) but he made only three field goals longer than 40 yards. The coverage teams were good last season.
At times, Rutgers looks as if it models its schedule-making off the Bill Snyder model. With the exception of a game against North Carolina, Rutgers should navigate its non-conference schedule with ease. The Scarlet Knights make a trip to Florida International in the second week of the season. It's a matchup against former Rutgers assistant Mario Cristobal and also a chance for the Scarlet Knights to play in one of their most important recruiting territories. The schedule has five home games before Oct. 16. The trade-off is a challenging slate to the end the season. Rutgers will play only two home games after mid-October and those are against the two worst teams in the Big East, Syracuse and Louisville.
Rutgers will be an intriguing team in the Big East. The Scarlet Knights could end up with the conference's best quarterback and the top defense. But they have glaring questions on the offensive line and no depth at the offensive skill positions. The biggest barrier to a BCS bowl could be the schedule, which includes Big East road trips to Pittsburgh, USF, Cincinnati and West Virginia. A sixth consecutive bowl game seems likely, but a Big East title seems at least a year away.