No one has a clue who's going to win this league. So the Doc's logically crossing off the contenders -- yes, all of them -- one by one. Part of Big East Week.
They will be missed. Quarterback Mike Teel and receiver Kenny Britt leave as school record holders in almost every meaningful category in their respective fields, and were never better than in the last seven games of 2008: After failing to score during Rutgers' 1-5 start, Britt hauled in 50 passes for 907 yards and seven of Teel's staggering 22 touchdown passes over the second half of the year. Arguably, they were the best quarterback-receiver combo in the country down the stretch, where departed seniors Tiquan Underwood and Kevin Brock were also key parts of the equation. As much criticism as he endured, it's hard to argue against Teel as the best passer (if not necessarily the greatest overall quarterback) in school history.
Into that void steps ... some guy, or possibly guys. Who, exactly, they're not entirely sure yet, except for the generic fact that the new quarterback will be about as green as they come. Tim Brown may be able to approximately Britt's presence as a downfield threat (though Brown was less reliable on more routine throws), but there is no evidence fifth-year seniors Domenic Natale or Jabu Lovelace -- combined career line: 11-of-39 for 114 yards, no touchdowns or interceptions -- will be able to consistently exploit that potential. True freshman Tom Savage may be the most prized recruit of Greg Schiano's entire tenure, but if the fruits of talents are probably at least a year or two away. Whoever wins the job may be doing well to put up half the numbers Teel did as a senior.
Deja vu? With who?. If that scenario sounds familiar to Rutgers fans, it's because it's nearly identical to the situation Teel stepped into in 2006, the year after the Knights ended a 27-year streak without a bowl appearance behind the solid play of senior QB Ryan Hart in 2005. That's an encouraging comparison: Teel didn't set the world on fire as a sophomore in '06, but did ultimately guide the team to its highest final poll finish ever (No. 12 in the AP).
That team made up for a mediocre passing game with a) A borderline dominant running game headed by a pair of All-Americans (Ray Rice and Brian Leonard) in the backfield running behind two future draft picks (Jeremy Zuttah and Cameron Stephenson) and two more All-Big East picks (Mike Fladell and Pedro Sosa) on the offensive line, which also allowed a national-low eight sacks all year; and b) A legitimately dominant defense that finished in the top-10 nationally in total defense, scoring defense and sacks.
Only one of those elements (All-Big East tackle and future draft pick Anthony Davis) is present on this team; the four returning members of last year's uninspiring running back rotation hardly recall the Rice/Leonard combo, while the defense finished in the bottom half of the conference last year in rushing, pass efficiency and total yards allowed and lost its anchors to the '06 unit (all-conference picks Jamaal Westerman and Courtney Greene). It's hard to predict a once-a-generation leap like the one from '05 to '06 being replicated within five years.
We are Rutgers. Given those losses, this would be a strange team to break Rutgers' conference championship drought, now at 18 years since joining the Big East in 1991. The Knights have never finished higher than a tie for second in the conference (2006 and 2008), a reflection of RU's perennially second-rate talent. It's easy after the barn-burning finish to forget that RU spent a month-and-a-half last year looking very much like it had regressed to the bad old days.
Granted, with the rest of the league in a relative backslide, it's not like these Knights have to be the best the school has ever produced to break through within the conference; the '06 team that effectively finished third behind then-powerhouses Louisville and West Virginia would undoubtedly cruise through this year's lineup. But is this team better than the one that sputtered against the front half of last year's schedule, minus most of the key cogs of the league's most productive passing attack? Not likely. So after almost two decades of also-ran status, why should anyone expect the standings to reflect anything different?