When the news broke that Rutgers would be joining the Big Ten this season, a lot of pundits wondered if the Scarlet Knights and their only recent history of football success would be a good fit for a conference that prides itself on gridiron tradition. With the league's football struggles, though, the real problems for Rutgers might come on the basketball court, where Eddie Jordan's squad limped to a seventh place finish in the AAC last year.
Even with a relatively new coach and some proven returning talent, Rutgers must prove it belongs in the Big Ten. That starts at the same place where every season starts: in the non-conference schedule.
The beginning will be tough for the Knights, as they take on George Washington (KenPom No. 47 in 2014) in the home opener on November 16. The Colonials made the NCAA Tournament last year for the first time since 2007 and are looking like a program on the rise. Still, Rutgers played them close in the nation's capital last autumn, so this should be a competitive game with the Knights having a chance to gain a quality win right off the bat.
If that fails, they can always resort to a revenge game against Fairleigh Dickinson (No. 280) on November 19. Rutgers stunningly dropped a contest to those other Knights around the same time in 2013, so avoiding a similar pitfall will be key to early season morale.
As we head into Thanksgiving, Rutgers has two home games against local opponents St. Francis-Brooklyn (No. 196) and Saint Peter's (No. 233) before heading up the New Jersey Turnpike to Brooklyn and the Barclays Classic. There, some still competition awaits the Knights, as they will face Vanderbilt (No. 112) in addition to either Virginia (No. 4) or 2013 Tournament darling LaSalle (No.105). The difference in ranking between Virginia and LaSalle makes it all the more important for Rutgers to win the first game of the Classic in order to improve its strength of schedule.
The slate doesn't get any easier after Brooklyn, as Rutgers heads down to South Carolina to face Clemson (No. 50) in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge before shipping back up north for a rivalry game in Newark against Seton Hall (No. 98).
How the Knights fare during this tough stretch will greatly influence how they are viewed heading into conference play. After that stretch of formidable opponents, the remainder of the December schedule is easy by comparison. Rutgers hosts New Hampshire (No. 329), and then goes to New York City to play a Manhattan (No. 60) team that will be short a considerable amount of talent from last season's NCAA Tournament appearance.
Then it's back to the RAC for St. Francis (the Pennsylvania version, No. 306) and Sacred Heart (No. 297) before one last road game versus Monmouth (No. 272) to wrap up the non-conference schedule.
While there are a lot of winnable games on the Knights' slate in November and December, those looking at the big picture should focus on the late November stretch that takes Rutgers to Brooklyn and Clemson. Those three games will tell us a lot about whether or not the Knights are ready to compete in the Big Ten.