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Analytics Avenue: Where Rutgers Football Stands Five Games Into The Season

A deep dive into the numbers and how RU projects out the rest of the season.

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Rutgers
Photo credit Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

We’re just over a third of the way through the Rutgers football season, and it’s high time for an update on the analytics with respect to the team. I was hoping to write this a week or two ago, but life got in the way as it sometimes does. Anyway – better late than never, and hopefully I don’t wait another five weeks between articles next time.

Rutgers football has very much exceeded my (and many others’) preseason expectations so far! 4-1 (1-1) going into Wisconsin is about the best we could have hoped for back in August. At this point, it might make sense to outline a couple of the reasons for the overperformance:

  1. The defense has been as predicted, but the offense has been way more efficient than previously expected. They’re not producing a ton of yards per game, and you might quibble with at-times conservative play calling (note: I’m not, but some others might), but you can’t deny the offense is playing to their strengths and it’s working. Last year, Rutgers was a bottom 10 FBS offense in terms of FPI/SP+, and this year they’re comfortably middle of the pack (more on this below). With the defense and special teams pretty much as good as last year’s team, that should do if your goal is six or maybe seven regular season wins.
  2. Going deeper into the offense and getting nerdy here about QB play, Pro Football Focus (subscription required) has deep information about how each QB in FBS has performed. I’m not going to get deep into the data here, but according to PFF, Gavin Wimsatt has been a very good passer this season (there’s a lot of green in his passer profile), especially short (0-9 yards out) and deep (20 yards out), especially when he’s been kept clean in the pocket and especially with no play action. (If you watch the film, they aren’t doing a lot of pure play action play design these days and I think this might be why.) A big part of this is he hasn’t made a ton of mistakes, but the PFF formula really likes his play so far. If you’re giving QB play a midseason grade, he gets a solid B-plus.

What many, including myself, didn’t see coming was the offensive progression as well as the flexibility of this roster. In August, I saw a thin roster (I was wrong, there’s more depth and movable parts here than I thought) in a gauntlet of a conference (I was wrong, the Big Ten hasn’t been as great this year overall) lacking game experience in key positions (which was technically correct, but hasn’t mattered as much as I thought it would). Apologies, mainly to myself because I don’t like being this wrong!

As of Wednesday, PFF lists Rutgers as being 74th in passing offense and 78th in rushing offense, which is fine enough. It makes me think back to the 2018-19 hoops season (one season before Rutgers was technically good at basketball, they were certainly interesting). No way this is intentional, but Schiano and staff are following the early Pikiell formula in a way; they’re building the defense and attitude first and having just enough offense to be scary. And so far this season, it’s been working.

Where does the team stand from an analytics perspective?

  • FPI: Rutgers 44th in FBS, 7th in Big Ten. Specifically, 61st on offense, 32nd on defense, 15th in Special Teams
  • SP+: 61st in FBS, 11th in the Big Ten. Specifically, 74th on offense, 43rd on defense, 31st in Special Teams
  • PFF*: 46th in FBS (Big Ten rankings are challenging to figure out here), 51st on offense, 30th on defense, 116th in Special Teams**

*PFF is not a predictive model, it’s a resume tool, but it’s analytics just the same so I’ll add it here

**Note special teams are really hard to quantify, different models do it differently, don’t read too much into the non-typo 116 here

And, what’s the path forward? The eye test (bowl prognosticators) and the advanced analytics align that this is a top-half of the conference football team with an above 50 percent chance at six wins and a bowl game.

The team’s sole focus should be on Wisconsin, but I’m here to look at predictions so here’s a look at the next three games entering Rutgers’ bye week:

  • At Wisconsin (10/7, 12pm) – Rutgers was a 13-point underdog when the spreads opened, and that feels a little wild to me (though Wisconsin is certainly the better team). I know some Wisconsin fans who may look at how their team has fared and elect to take Rutgers and the points. This should be an interesting game, for sure.
  • Michigan State (10/14, 12pm) – Rutgers could be a moderate favorite at home if they perform reasonably well in Madison (note Michigan State has a bye week this week).
  • At Indiana (10/21, 12pm) – it gets challenging to predict this far out, but let’s say for the sake of argument, Rutgers loses by a touchdown in Madison and wins at home against Michigan State. I’d still expect Rutgers to be a slight favorite in Bloomington against Indiana in this scenario.

Anyway, I’m talking about favorites and underdogs here NOT to provide gambling advice, but instead to say there’s a plausible path forward, maybe even a 30-40% chance path forward, where Rutgers is something like 6-2 going into a bye week and a home matchup against a likely top-10 Ohio State team (where Rutgers can play with house money the rest of the season, if you’ll forgive yet another gambling analogy). Cool stuff, and a lot to look forward to.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. thevinman

    October 5, 2023 at 12:01 pm

    Is it just a coincidence that both Wisconsin and Michigan State are coming off byes when they play us or is it the Big Ten trying to make things more difficult for us?

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