Ah, Rutgers. What to make of the Scarlet Knights...
A program most of us didn't think twice about as children. This school, that really should be called the State University of New Jersey, was as much a cupcake as anything Hostess could ever dream up. When it came to playing the Knights, ringing up 70 points was a real goal.
Patsy, thy name was Rutgers.
But things are different now, as we're all very well aware. For the most part the Knights have gotten better, and for the most part the Orange have gotten worse. Rutgers routinely goes to bowl games, Syracuse routinely does not. And the strange part, during this turn of events for both programs, Rutgers v. Syracuse has become something that resembles a rivalry.
This bad blood between the two was probably born out each school's recent fate, built up a little by Greg Robinson, of all people, and developed by the results of the team's last three games against each other -- which have been mostly close and certainly hard fought.
And there is one more factor in why the two programs and their fans don't see eye-to-eye; the schedule. For Rutgers, September and October are months usually dotted with victories over Howard, North Carolina Central, and ITT Tech (I swear I only made up one of those teams). Syracuse, on the other hand, routinely faces BCS quality competition, including this year where it took on Northwestern and USC.
The Syracuse fans rip Rutgers for loading up on pastries. The Rutgers side looks at Syracuse like we used to look at them, a downtrodden team. One that holds itself down by scheduling too tough. And really, both sides are right. SU usually doesn't avoid anyone, a philosophy best described as "what ever doesn't kill you makes you stronger" but is that helping? The Knights, it appears, use September as a building block to the Big East, mostly avoiding losses while building confidence, but does that do any good once the schedule beefs up?
Regardless, both philosophies will be on display in neon lights Saturday, as these two would-be rivals face off for what is likely to be the last time.
I find it endlessly fascinating that, in this potential last game against each other, Rutgers and Syracuse are putting together classic seasons. Is Syracuse underachieving again, waiting to get beat in Jersey? Is Rutgers truly untested, ripe for the picking?
An interesting question. Consider: Syracuse sits at 2-3, a team clinging to life support with just about everyone readying to deliver Last Rights. Rutgers, conversely, finds itself in the Top 20 of college football, sitting at 5-0 and looking like one of the biggest surprises of the season.
Let's look at the first five weeks for each team:
--Two of Rutgers' opponents have a combined two wins (Tulane 0-4, Arkansas 2-4). At the conclusion of 2012 the Knights will have played one of the easiest non-conference schedules in the nation.
In defense, Knights fans would point to the team's ability to win on the road, something its done three times already, including at league foe USF. They would also point out that their team ranks fifth in the nation in total defense, allowing just over 10 points per game with less than 300 yards allowed per game. And while the offense is clearly the weak(er) link of the team, fans will point to wide out Brandon Coleman, who already has five TD grabs this season, as a star on the rise.
-- Four of Syracuse's five opponents so far each have only one loss. USC is still a favorite to gain a BCS bowl berth and Northwestern could easily end up winning the mediocre Big 10.
While the goal of any game is to obviously win, if you're Doug Marrone you've got to be hoping these early season tests have made your team better. Pittsburgh, Rutgers, Cincinnati? They look much more attractive after trying to tackle Matt Barkley and Robert Woods. Right?
So who's right? If Rutgers is taking the easy way out, its still been able to enjoy playing in December -- including winning last year's Pinstripe Bowl. If Syracuse is really a below .500 team, tell Pittsburgh the Orange aren't any good.
Of course, a Rutgers wins it doesn't mean Syracuse's way is wrong and vice-versa should the Orange win. I mean, one game does not a season or program make. But the thing is, this game means something different, this is probably the last time the burgeoning rivalry will take place. So, it's not crazy to think Syracuse v. Rutgers 2012 may actually tell us if Rutgers has really been for real, and just the same, Saturday could tell us if Syracuse is really as bad as it has looked all these years.
All of a sudden, Syracuse - Rutgers, a game that has meant so little for so long, now carries a lot of weight. Sadly, after Saturday, none of this will really matter.