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NCAA Football Preview - Rutgers Scarlet Knights

2013 SEASON IN REVIEW: One of two new Big Ten Conference members, along with Maryland, Rutgers stumbled to a 6-7 finish in its final season in the American Athletic Conference in 2013.

The Scarlet Knights found themselves in a dogfight at Fresno State in the opener, a game they eventually lost 52-51 in overtime thanks to a failed two- point conversion. To its credit, the squad bounced back and went on a four- game win streak, which included triumphs over Arkansas (28-24) and a thrilling triple-overtime victory at SMU (55-52).

However, the team was unable to sustain the momentum when it got into the heart of its conference schedule. Rutgers suffered a 24-10 loss at Louisville on Oct. 10, then came out of a bye and got embarrassed at home by Houston in a 49-14 final.

All told, the Scarlet Knights lost six of their final eight games, including a 29-16 setback to Notre Dame in the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium on Dec. 28.

2014 ANALYSIS:

OFFENSE: After an up-and-down season last year, Gary Nova gets first dibs at holding down the starting quarterback spot, although head coach Kyle Flood said at Big Ten media day that he had not yet officially named a starter.

"Gary's done an excellent job this offseason of really improving his decision- making," Flood said. "It's never been about making the throws for Gary. Gary can make all the throws. He's got excellent arm talent, the ability to locate the ball. He's athletic to move around in the pocket. So it's never been about that. It's really just being a consistent decision-maker."

Nova completed only 54.5 percent of his passes in 2013, and he threw 14 interceptions to go along with his 18 touchdowns.

Expect Rutgers to once again lean on running back Paul James, who averaged a league-best 97.9 rushing yards per game in nine contests (eight starts) to become the first RU back to earn first-team all-conference honors since Ray Rice in 2007.

The cupboard is pretty bare at wide receiver, although last year's top pass catcher, tight end Tyler Kroft (43 rec, 573 yds, 4 TDs) is back. The team also returns five starters along the offensive line.

DEFENSE: On paper, Rutgers seems like an ideal fit in a Big Ten Conference that boasts several dangerous rushing attacks.

"To me, Big Ten football starts with physicality, and I think you had better get your program ready for the physical battle that is going to happen up front," coach Flood said. "You look at the teams in this conference and whether they're traditional offenses, spread offenses, for the most part they're offenses that want to run the football and stop the run. And those are two things that we've always started with at Rutgers."

Considering the Scarlet Knights were fourth-best in the nation against the run last year (100.8 ypg), perhaps Big Ten foes should be concerned about matching Rutgers' physicality in the trenches. Defensive tackle Darius Hamilton is a handful, as he collected 11.5 tackles for loss last year, including 4.5 sacks.

At linebacker, the team's top two tacklers return in Steve Longa (123 tackles, 7.5 TFL) and Kevin Snyder (96 tackles, 7.5 TFL). Three starters return in the secondary, although the Scarlet Knights totaled only 8 interceptions as a team in 2013, compared to 22 for the opposition.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Placekicker Kyle Federico is back, but the coaching staff wants to see more consistency from the junior kicker after converting only 12-of-18 field goal attempts with a long of 48 yards. He also was replaced on kickoffs by punter Nick Marsh, who was lost to graduation.

OUTLOOK: The Scarlet Knights will host Penn State in their first-ever Big Ten conference matchup on Sept. 13, and they'll travel to Navy a week later. But the true test will come during a four-game stretch in the middle of the season that will see Rutgers travel to Ohio State and Nebraska in between home bouts with Michigan and Wisconsin. Even splitting that stretch may be optimistic, but then again, the Scarlet Knights are mostly unfamiliar to the rest of the league.

"We're excited about the season, but we're excited about our football team," coach Flood said. "It's a football team that, on offense, brings 10 players who have started football games for us, a significant amount of experience. And on defense, a defense really that brings nine players that have started for us in games and a lot of players who have had a smaller role. So I think it's a little bit more experienced team than we had last year."

If that experience can produce six or seven wins in the team's debut season in the Big Ten, most fans will take it.