Rutgers’ claim to fame is playing in the first college football game, which the Scarlet Knights — then known as the Queensmen — won by the first scorigami ever, 6-4.
It was a while after that before bowl games became a thing, but bowls still have existed for more than a century, and Rutgers has been to a grand total of 10 of them — the 1978 Garden State Bowl, then every year but one from 2005-14.
Even during Rutgers’ “glory years” under the since-returned Greg Schiano and Kyle Flood, the Scarlet Knights never approached a bowl game with anything matching their own history. Rutgers has been to the Pinstripe Bowl twice, as well as the Insight Bowl, Texas Bowl, International Bowl, PapaJohns.com Bowl, St. Petersburg Bowl, Russell Athletic Bowl, and, most recently, the 2014 Quick Lane Bowl.
For most of the last century, the only way that you could envision Rutgers in a top bowl game would be some kind of apocalyptic event in which only New Jersey was spared. That’s still true, but there’s another tier of bowls between the College Football Playoff/New Year’s Six group of bowls and the mid-December weekday afternoon filler bowls that represent Rutgers’ usual ceiling. It’s those bowls that have been around for a long time, but always have been kind of the second tier of bowls: the Sun, the Citrus, the Liberty… the Gator Bowl.
It’s the Gator Bowl, 43 years after Ohio State coach Woody Hayes punched Clemson defensive lineman Charlie Bauman, where Rutgers will rise to its greatest-ever postseason height, because while we’re not enduring the apocalypse everywhere but New Jersey, we are in the midst of a global pandemic that is surging at the moment, and has hit Texas A&M so hard that the Aggies had to pull out of their matchup with Wake Forest.
It stinks for Texas A&M, and when the game happens, it’ll probably stink for Rutgers, because Wake Forest is really good, and the Scarlet Knights will have a week of preparation after having thought their season was over. But it’s also great for Rutgers.
When the regular season ended, the Scarlet Knights believed that their bowl drought was continuing, right alongside Rice, whose last postseason trip was the 2014 Hawaii Bowl. The only Power 5 school that’s been out of the bowl picture longer than Rutgers is Kansas, which hasn’t been to a postseason exhibition since the 2008 Insight Bowl. Louisiana-Monroe (2012 Independence Bowl) is the only other FBS school with a longer ongoing drought, while UNLV played in the 2014 Heart of Dallas Bowl, and UMass and Texas State have never gone to bowls.
But now? Rutgers will have been to a bowl game more recently than historic titans of the sport Texas (2020 Alamo Bowl), USC ( 2019 Holiday Bowl), and Nebraska (2016 Music City Bowl). That’s quite an achievement for a team that not only did not have a 100-yard rusher in any of its last eight games, but did not have a 100-yard passer in any of its last four. After beating Temple, Syracuse, and Delaware to start the season, Rutgers went 2-7 in Big Ten play, its only wins coming at moribund Illinois and winless Indiana.
Wake Forest has quarterback Sam Hartman needing just 76 passing yards to reach 4,000 for the season, and three running backs with at least five touchdowns each to go with Hartman’s 11 scores on the ground.
You could easily argue that 3-9 Nebraska, which went 1-8 in the conference but had a scoring differential of zero because of all its close losses and blowout of Northwestern, would be a superior choice to at least give Wake Forest a game. But Nebraska, even with its own bowl drought, would probably have the good sense to avoid… wait, no they wouldn’t.
But hey, congratulations to Rutgers, because their bowl trip is, in fact, earned. The Scarlet Knights were better in the classroom than on the field, as their APR score got them the right of first refusal to the Gator Bowl. Not only do they now get New Year’s Eve in Florida, but an eternal bragging right over Princeton, which not only lost the first football game, but which has never earned such prestige as the Gator Bowl in recognition of their academics.