Coming off a historic 2006 campaign, the 16th-ranked Rutgers Scarlet Knights begin their quest for another magical season this Thursday, as they host the Buffalo Bulls in non-conference play from New Jersey.
In his sixth season as head coach, Greg Schiano finally put Rutgers on the map following a remarkable '06 campaign. Mostly an afterthought in the Big East, the Knights emerged last season to become one of college football's best stories, as the New Jersey school posted an 11-2 record, marking just the second 11-win season in the program's 137 years of existence. It didn't stop their either, as Rutgers also posted its first-ever bowl win, defeating Kansas State (37-10) in the Texas Bowl. That win was certainly nice for Rutgers, but it actually had a shot of participating in a BSC bowl, unbelievably. A 41-39 triple-overtime lose to West Virginia in their season finale is the only thing that kept the Knights from winning the Big East title and earning the conference's automatic berth in a BSC bowl. Still, the Knights earned a lot of respect last season and that has carried over, as they enter this season ranked in the top 25 of both polls for the first time in school history.
As for Buffalo, it can only hope for a big time turnaround like Rutgers following another dreadful campaign in 2006. The Bulls won just two of their 12 games last season, although that was actually an improvement from their 1-10 showing the previous year. On a positive note, Buffalo does welcome back a plethora of experience on both sides of the ball and that is good news for second year head coach Turner Gill.
As far as the all-time series goes, Rutgers owns a 4-1 edge over Buffalo, including 17-3 triumph in the most recent encounter in 2005.
The Bulls have struggled greatly on the offensive side of the ball over the last several years, and although last season's unit showed improvement, they still finished a dreadful 109th in total yards (268.2 ypg). The good news however, is that eight starters are welcomed back and that gives Buffalo hope for a turnaround. Junior Drew Willy will once again be the starting quarterback for the Bulls and he is coming off a decent '06 campaign. Willy threw for just 1,391 yards and six scores in '06, but he did complete a school-record 60.2 percent of his throws. Expectations are high for Willy this season, although he did lose his top two wideouts. Senior Terrance Breaux however, does return and he will look to build off his 32-catch performance from a year ago. In the backfield is where the Bulls' most dangerous weapon resides in James Starks. The sophomore finished with 704 yards and six scores in his rookie campaign last season and with a year of experience under his belt, he should compete for a 1,000-yard campaign.
Much like the offense, Buffalo's defense welcomes back eight starters from a unit that basically has no place to go but up. Last season, the Bulls ranked a dreadful 100th in the nation in total yards, allowing 390.4 ypg. Up front, senior defensive end Trevor Scott is a force and he will surely gain a lot of attention after posting 13.5 TFLs and nine sacks last season. At linebacker, Ollice Ervin is the only starter to return. The senior is the best tackler on the squad and that was evident last season, when he finished with 96 stops. As for the secondary, all four starters are welcomed back, including senior safety Kareem Byrom. The senior recorded 88 tackles and nine TFLs and he is solid against both the run and pass.
For Rutgers, it all starts with tailback Ray Rice, who was the major reason why the offense ranked a solid 22nd in the nation in scoring (29.8 ppg) last season. The junior back rushed a school-record 1,794 yards and 20 scores last season, as he finished seventh in the Heisman Trophy voting. In 25 career games, Rice has posted an impressive 15 100-yard performances and that number will surely increase by season's end. Quarterback Mike Teel didn't have a great season by anyone's standards in '06, but he did get the job done. The junior gunslinger, who came on late last season, through for 2,135 yards, but with just 12 touchdowns against 13 interceptions. Now in his second full season as a starter, Teel could be ready to become the big time player Rutgers expects him to be. Sophomore Kenny Britt and junior Tiquan Underwood are two capable targets for Teel, and with opposing defenses stacking the line of scrimmage to stop Rice, they should have plenty of opportunities to make big plays.
The biggest reason for Rutgers' emergence last year wasn't actually its offense, but instead its defense. The Knights ranked fourth in total defense (252.2 ypg), fifth in sacks (41) and eighth in scoring (14.3 ppg) in '06 and they should be nearly as good this season with six returning starters. Leading the way is senior tackle Eric Foster, who earned First-Team All- American honors after posting 51 stops, 14 TFLs and six sacks last season. Foster is strong against the run and he also has the quickness to get into the backfield. Jamaal Westerman had eight sacks from his end position and should be able to at least maintain that figure. At linebacker is where the Knights' biggest concern resides, as only Brandon Renkart returns to his starting role. The senior registered 54 stops and 11.5 TFLs last season and he will be counted on to not only improve on those numbers, but to provide leadership as well. As for the defensive backfield, three of four starters return and that is outstanding news for a unit that ranked sixth against the pass (151.2 ypg) last season. Junior Courtney Greene and senior Ron Girault form one of the top safety tandems around and they combined for 151 stops and seven interceptions in '06.