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Bowl eligibility huge accomplishment for Rutgers

Last Saturday, the Rutgers football team ended the home portion of their schedule in style, defeating Big Ten foe Indiana 45-23 on Senior Day at High Point Solutions Stadium. The win for the Scarlet Knights was just their first since knocking off Michigan at home on Oct. 4, but the victory over the Hoosiers ensured that for the fourth straight season and the ninth time in 10 years, Rutgers would play in a postseason bowl game.

When you consider how bleak the outlook was for Rutgers at the outset of the college football season, getting win number six under their belt in their inaugural Big Ten campaign is quite the impressive accomplishment. Players, coaches and fans alike should be proud of how the Knights have fared during the maiden Big Ten voyage.

Before the 2014 college football season began, the prevailing feeling regarding Rutgers football — from everyone outside Piscataway — was that the Scarlet Knights were going to struggle mightily making the transition from the American Athletic Conference to the Big Ten, a traditional football powerhouse. To fully appreciate what Rutgers has been able to do this year, I think the most effective thing to do is to look back at a few preseason predictions.

Brian Hamilton of Sports Illustrated put together his preseason Big Ten prediction in mid-August, and he projected the Scarlet Knights to finish in dead last in the conference. He picked Rutgers to go just 3-9 overall and to finish with a 1-7 record in conference play. Rutgers had this projection beat by the end of September, as they wrapped up their fourth win of the season with a home victory over Tulane on Sept. 27. They’ve already got twice the number of conference wins that Hamilton projected, with an opportunity for two more.

It wasn’t just Sports Illustrated that projected the Knights to be in over their heads in the new conference, though. Preseason ESPN Big Ten power rankings had Rutgers in the 13th spot out of 14 teams in the league. Fast-forward to today, and the Scarlet Knights currently sit at 9 in those same power rankings. While a power ranking means very little in the grand scheme of things and a jump from 13th to ninth is modest at best, it does prove Rutgers has done a solid job of being better than expected coming into the year.

Even the Big Ten itself was pretty down on one if its brand-new members. Tom Dienhart, senior writer for the Big Ten Network’s official website, projected the Scarlet Knights to finish in the basement of the Big Ten East in 2014, citing “depth issues and an iffy secondary.” Indiana will take the honor of finishing as the last-place team in the division, and it’s possible for Rutgers to surpass Penn State, Michigan and even Maryland in the standings depending on how the final weeks of the regular season play out.

Of course, there are many out there who feel that even with bowl eligibility, head coach Kyle Flood has the Knights stuck in a rut of mediocrity. Fans have every reason to want more out of seasons than simply looking for the bare minimum to make a bowl game. Some don’t think anyone should be celebrating six wins that have come against opponents with a combined 23-38 record, but with the initial expectation that Rutgers was going to get completely run off the field in almost every game this year, six wins in 10 games is a pretty solid clip.

I’m not saying fans should start planning a parade down Easton Avenue in New Brunswick or they should expect to have one of the four spots in next year’s College Football Playoff locked up because that’s certainly not the case. The Scarlet Knights are a flawed team that has shown inconsistency on offense and major holes defensively. However, even with these issues, it’s a good indication of where a program is when they can still lock up bowl eligibility with a few weaknesses on the team.

One thing we’ve learned from Rutgers this season is that it may be a while before they will be able to compete with the Big Ten’s elite teams. Brutal blowout losses Ohio State, Nebraska and Wisconsin provide all the evidence you need on that front. With another major challenge on deck this coming week, a road game against Michigan State, Rutgers has another uphill climb in store.

No matter what happens in the next few weeks, though, the Scarlet Knights will be playing in a bowl game — a pretty good start in the Big Ten.

James Stumper is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in journalism and media studies and history. His column, “Stumper’s Sports,” runs on alternate Thursdays.

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