Rob Oller | Big Ten decision to add Rutgers increased eyeballs and eye rolls

Rob Oller
Buckeye Xtra

Rutgers is the East Coast elite at the cocktail party with food stuck in his teeth. Rutgers is the lonely stray sock. Rutgers is the pathetic three-legged dog. Rutgers is, well, you get the picture.

You want carnage? Got you covered. Last season, Ohio State smacked the Scarlet Knights 56-21, but that was a bloodless coup compared with the 52-3 beatdown of 2018, which was a walk in the park compared with the 56-0 drubbing in 2017, which was in line with the 58-0 drubbing in 2016.

Rutgers was a respectable program in Greg Schiano's first tenure as head coach at the school, and the Scarlet Knights broke a 21-game Big Ten losing streak two weeks ago in his first game back in charge.

To save time, just know that since Rutgers’ first Big Ten season in 2014 the Buckeyes are 6-0 against the Scarlet Knights and have outscored them 327-48, an average score of 55-8. And Brutus wasn’t alone in swinging the ax. Rut-roh-gers is 8-45 against Big Ten teams, including conference losing streaks of 16 and 21 games.

But hey, what about that lucrative East Coast footprint? That has to count for something. Actually, millions of somethings. A case can be made that Rutgers’ close proximity to the New York media market (Piscataway, New Jersey is about 30 miles from the city) contributed to the spike in Big Ten media rights revenue, which has jumped from about $25 million to $50 million per team over the past five years.

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In other words, despite what Ohio State fans think, Rutgers is valuable as more than an automatic “W” in football. At least that’s what former Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany thought when he began courting the Jersey school in 1994 as the conference considered expansion. That’s right, Rutgers was on the Big Ten’s radar way back in the days when Ohio State knew how to lose to Michigan.

Given the eye rolls when OSU fans hear “Rutgers,” let’s examine why Rutgers was adopted into the Big Ten family. And just for fun, let’s also attempt to rewrite history by playing “what if?”

What if Notre Dame had climbed aboard the Big Ten train in the 1990s? (It probably was never going to happen.) What if Nebraska had come to grips with its jealousy over Texas and opted to pass on joining the Big Ten in 2010 and remain in the Big 12? What if Maryland had not been such a train wreck financially and had remained in the Atlantic Coast Conference instead of jumping at Big Ten money?

Would any of it had made a difference in terms of adding Rutgers? Probably not, although the Big Ten also looked at Connecticut and Syracuse, which while not adjacent to New York City would have provided something of the East Coast footprint for which Delany drooled.

Missouri was mentioned as a possibility, but despite being a member of the academically prestigious Association of American Universities, in 2010 Mizzou ranked just 102nd on the U.S. News and World Report list of top colleges and universities. The Tigers eventually left the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference. Pittsburgh also reportedly was in the mix, but the Panthers provided no additional media footprint.

It is easy now to ridicule the Big Ten decision to add Rutgers, and even Maryland, given the Terrapins' lack of competitive teeth in football. Even Nebraska is looking like a somewhat shaky invite, considering the Cornhuskers were brought in because of their football prowess, which has dissolved, more than for their limited TV market.

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But second-guessing requires context. The Scarlet Knights were not as much of a litter-strewn back alley when Delany began seriously considering them for Big Ten entry, in the 2000s. Beyond financial considerations — it is debatable whether Delany considered anything but potential media earnings, but for purposes of this discussion we will assume he did — Rutgers had become relevant in football after emerging from the basement of the Big East.

The Scarlet Knights went 56-33 (.629) from 2005 to 2011 under coach Greg Schiano, who brings Rutgers into Ohio Stadium on Saturday night in his second stint with the program. (He also is familiar with the Horseshoe, having served as a Buckeyes defensive assistant from 2016-18, but is unfamiliar with getting trounced inside of it, as will happen on Saturday.)

Ohio State's previous six games against Rutgers have resulted in a consistent parade to the end zone for the Buckeyes, including J.K. Dobbins' touchdown run last season.

The takeaway? Rutgers was a respectable football program when the Big Ten came calling. The marriage also made sense for the Scarlet Knights because of the financial windfall that would arrive from Big Ten media contracts and because the Big East was cratering; the conference dropped football in late 2012. 

Schiano left Rutgers after the 2011 season, and while the Scarlet Knights did not immediately fall off a cliff, the Big Ten proved too rich for their blood competitively, especially when former Ohio State defensive coach Chris Ash followed Kyle Flood’s 12-13 record with an abysmal mark of 8-32.

Can Schiano bring Rutgers back? It would be hard not to improve on Ash’s record, but the East Division is no picnic. A better question would be whether Ohio State wants Rutgers to improve? Maybe a little, to make the Big Ten appear stronger overall.

But considering how one loss to an unranked team can derail playoff plans — see Iowa in 2017 and Purdue in 2018 — the Buckeyes don’t need the Scarlet Knights to get good anytime soon.

roller@dispatch.com

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