Rutgers must earn their Big Ten keep

Sooner or later, Rutgers has to start winning elite Big Ten games to be taken seriously.

Labor Day weekend is always the start of college football season and preparation for Week 1 of the NFL.

America is already ready to roll with college football. It’s for a community to band together and enjoy life whether it’s at college football stadiums or at your local watering hole.

Yes, in New York and New Jersey, fans will be into college football games across the country, but it will have nothing to do with Rutgers football. No one cares about Rutgers outside of a brief nice run in 2006. Since moving to the Big Ten, they have been irrelevant in the minds of New Yorkers. They have been the butt of jokes by Big Ten fans across the Midwest. That’s the way it goes when they have had one winning season as a Big Ten team since 2014.

Rutgers thought it had a good football program that could shine in the Big Ten with then-coach Greg Schiano recruiting well and winning games. No one knew Schiano had ambitions to coach in the NFL. Ever since he left, the program has been in ground zero, which is nowhere to go but up.

The Big Ten did not sign up for this, either. The conference used Rutgers to get the Big Ten Network up and running in New York and New Jersey, not to mention the idea was to get the university in strengthening the conference. There has to be a buyer’s remorse after three years of lousy football.

It’s on third-year head coach Chris Ash to build the program up. To say it hasn’t been easy is an understatement. He hasn’t convinced the five-star recruits in the state of New Jersey to play for Rutgers. He is 6-18 in his first two years as Rutgers football head coach. It speaks low of Rutgers’ standards that a bowl season would constitute a successful season, not to mention a sign of progress for a program that is trying to prove itself in the Big Ten.

Sorry, Rutgers fans. Getting to a lower-echelon bowl game this year does not mean Rutgers is on the right track. Not even a winning season will do. Certainly, not the 35-7 season opener victory over Texas State Saturday afternoon and beating cream puffs on the non-conference schedule will get fans in town to pay attention.

Here’s what will make Rutgers relevant in the Big Ten: They need to get at least a win or two against the marquee Big Ten programs this year or beyond. They need Ash’s recruits to be game-changing players. They also need a quarterback that can be a difference maker, not a game-manager. In other words, they better hope freshman starting quarterback Artur Sitkowski turns out to be the next Kirk Cousins, Connor Cook or Brian Lewerke if they want to show that’s a program that is finally coming together. Plus, they need to be in a position where they are good enough to start scheduling the good teams such as Louisville, Auburn, West Virginia or USC to their non-conference schedule.

Ash’s job will be depending on it. He is not in danger of being fired anytime soon. Rutgers athletic director Pat Dobbs understands the difficult task his head coach has, but sooner or later, progress has to be made or it will be someone else that will have the difficult chore of making Rutgers a player in the Big Ten. Even Ash knows he won’t be getting many chances for life if the program does not make progress.

Rutgers has had one good year, and that was in 2006 when they upset then-No. 3 Louisville on a nationally televised Thursday night game at then-Rutgers Stadium, which is now called HighPoint Solutions Stadium. That was the game that ended Louisville’s national championship dreams and ascended Rutgers on the college football landscape and the conscious of New York sports fans. That was when Rutgers fans finally came out of the woodwork to show their pride.

Since then, it has been all downhill for Rutgers. It started with mediocrity and ended with being awful again. Being in the Big Ten has made them even worse since they are not equipped to beat any good to great programs in that conference. They don’t have the players to handle the rigors of the conference. No one has any interest in playing for Rutgers since it’s tough for them to do well in the Big Ten.

Rutgers can attract fans by offering better game day entertainment or offer hogwash about how they are making strides, but wins and losses are the standard for people in this market.

There has not been enough wins to make them matter in the Big Ten. Big Ten teams such as Maryland will use Rutgers as its homecoming game with the idea it would be an easy win. Some Big Ten teams such as Michigan State would be happy to use Rutgers as a foil for them to win their senior day game.

Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany has been patient by saying the right things that it will take time for Rutgers to gain its footing, but he can’t be happy with the losing, either. For all the criticism Rutgers received for going to the Big Ten, the conference should receive its fair share of criticism for accepting a football program that had accomplished nothing outside of being the birth of college football.

Rutgers and the Big Ten are stuck with each other.

It doesn’t have to be a lost cause for Rutgers. Michigan State, Wisconsin, Iowa and Northwestern have proven to do well in a Big Ten.

If they can do it, so can Rutgers.

It’s on them to figure it out if they want to be in the conscious of the Big Ten and in the New York sports scene.

Leslie Monteiro

Leslie Monteiro is a syndicated sports columnist who writes about the Tri-State area teams for the Upstate Courier. He is based in Fort Lee, New Jersey, and can be reached on Twitter @MongoGoesInSane.

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