Hey everyone, my name is Fred Gaudios and it’s a pleasure to be back writing about Rutgers athletics here at The Scarlet Faithful. For those who are not familiar, I was on Aaron’s team for several years when he was managing editor at On The Banks, primarily (but not entirely) writing about basketball and football from an advanced analytical perspective.
Now I’m happy to be here, again mostly planning to write from that same perspective – though in what may turn out to be a disastrous editorial decision by Aaron, I’ve apparently been given some creative freedom, so also expect some bizarre treatises on Yacht Rock, grunge rock, 1990’s sitcom television, and The Weather Channel’s late night programming (like seriously, what’s better: “Highway Thru Hell” or “Heavy Rescue: 401”?).
Introductions now out of the way, as I write this, college football kicks off in about a week – Rutgers about a week later, with a nationally televised game against Northwestern at noon on September 3. In this piece, I’ll look at the advanced analytics and what they’re saying about Rutgers football from a preseason perspective. My goal (though sometimes life and work get in the way) is to update every two or three games during the football season, so long as the data remains interesting.
(Now’s as good a time as any to remind people of this disclaimer: I use analytics to inform my judgment as a sports fan and a sports writer, but they’re not the end-all-be-all of sports. The eye test can be just as valuable as the analytics, and in an ideal world, they complement each other, and each provides unique insight to enhance the sports viewing experience. Robots do not play sports, and despite what my wife might tell you, I am not a robot. Enjoy the games.)
My first stop for college football analytics is always ESPN’s SP+. These metrics are tempo-adjusted, reflect the efficiency of each unit, and are updated weekly by Bill Connelly, who is a leading sports analytics guru with a specialty in college football. The numbers I’m about to show you are dynamic but right now, with no games played so far this season, they’re just preseason projections.
What does SP+ say about Rutgers?
- Ranked 77th out of 133 FBS schools overall (12th in the Big Ten)
- Ranked 99th out of 133 FBS schools in offensive efficiency
- Ranked 60th in defensive efficiency
- Projected to go 4-8, 1.8-7.2 in conference (or if you prefer rounding, 2-7)
- 12th strongest strength of schedule in the country
- Returning production: 70%, 29th in the nation (3rd in the Big Ten)
Forever the optimist, the first thing I’ll say about the above numbers is if you really squint your eyes, there’s some cause for optimism and upside here. At the end of the 2022 season, Rutgers was (overall/offensive/defensive) ranked 97/119/57, and this year they are ranked 77/99/60. That’s a bit of an upswing.
And with above-average returning production, if some impact players return strongly from 2022 injuries, and if the other returning guys continue to get coached up, and if with a weaker non-conference and opening Big Ten game, and if the team gets some momentum and starts 3-0… I don’t know what I’m saying here exactly, but there’s a path forward where Rutgers football looks better than the initial topline numbers seem to suggest.
What’s the other side of the coin? The SP+ projection has Rutgers 4-8 (2-7), and even if Rutgers were to start the season 3-0 (1-0), it’s such a backloaded schedule, the predictive model is already accounting for this potentially happening. We say this every year, but this season is a gauntlet. Rutgers plays five (!!) schools ranked in the AP Preseason Top 25, plus Maryland who received votes in the Coaches’ Poll and is a sexy pick to finish with a strong record this year. The needle they have to thread to win five or, dare I say, six games this season is exceptionally narrow.
You can reconcile this with the returning production being a positive at 70% by realizing – and I’ll say this as gently as possible – the production of the returning players has to itself be meaningful, and net-net the 2022 production of Rutgers’ players wasn’t enough to move the SP+ needle more than 20 ranking spots, from 97th overall to 77th.
Quick aside: before someone complains, there are other metrics you can look at for college football.
- ESPN’s FPI is decent enough, but it hasn’t updated in a while (e.g., I’m not sure it’s been updated since before the N’Western scandal) and it’s generally more accurate as the season continues.
- There’s also Sharp College Football which is a free site, but I find their look and feel so clunky I’m not sure I can recommend their analysis yet.
- (If anyone has any other sites they like, pop into the comments and I’m happy to consider your recommendations. The CFB analytics space is, unlike hoops, a bit more of a Wild Wild West situation.)
Getting back to Rutgers, where do I land on this? I’m typically an optimist about Rutgers athletics, but this season with respect to football, I’m not very optimistic.
I hope I’m proven wrong once the season begins, but I see too many yellow-to-red flags. Coach Greg Schiano’s first post-scrimmage press conference led to some concerns about position battles, and to me, his body language just seemed off. We don’t know yet whether Gavin Wimsatt, being given the reigns before training camp as QB1, can help lead the offense consistently. While the upcoming 2024 recruiting class looks strong, the calendar still reads 2023, and it’s an open question whether there’s enough physical depth on both sides of the line to allow this team to function offensively and defensively. Like I said, too many yellow-to-red flags.
I guess we’ll see. If I had a crystal ball, I’d be on a tropical island somewhere sipping a mai tai, but the best available information makes me think this is a 3- or 4-win team. Now prove me wrong, Rutgers.