As the ever-shifting landscape of college conference alignment starts to settle, only a few swimming & diving programs will transition to new competitive homes this year. Among them are the Rutgers Scarlet Knights, who join the Big Ten.
The Rutgers women are the only additions to the Big Ten, as fellow conference newbies Maryland cut their men’s and women’s programs after the 2012 season. Rutgers men’s program was also cut back in the mid-2000s.
The jump to the Big Ten will be a big one (pardon the pun), especially coming from the American Athletic Conference, which last season fielded just 6 women’s programs. But the change probably won’t feel huge until late in the season. Despite the conference move, Rutgers only has one Big Ten opponent on its schedule, and that’s a two-day dual with Penn State on January 16-17.
That’s actually less Big Ten opposition than the team had last season. Last January, the Scarlet Knights went on the road to take on Illinois, another women-only Big Ten program on January 10 before heading across the state of Illinois for a quad meet with Northwestern, Michigan, and the ACC’s Notre Dame.
Part of the oddity of Rutgers and Maryland joining the Big Ten was geographic, with two East Coast programs jumping into a primarily Midwestern conference. That geography (and the travel expenses that come with it) is probably the reason for so few Big Ten opponents on the schedule. Rutgers is staying close to home, with 7 of their 10 mid-season meets at home and with short road trips to New Hampshire and Connecticut. The only long trip outside of post-season action is a triangular in Florida on January 10th that’s probably tied to a training trip.
But the team will head to Columbus, Ohio for the Big Ten Championships, where they’ll look to follow up what was a strong third-place finish in the AAC last season. The Lady Knights finished only behind runaway champs Louisville and the former Conference-USA champs SMU. That run included two wins from Joanna Wu, plus runner-up finishes for Morgan Pfaff (200 IM and 400 IM) and diver Nicole Scott (platform).
Things are much, much deeper in the Big Ten, which last season saw 5 different teams crack the top 25 at NCAAs, including three in the top 15: Minnesota (10th), Indiana (12th), Wisconsin (13th), Penn State (18th) and Purdue (25th).
The biggest impact on the conference looks to be Wu, who would have been the Big Ten runner-up in the 200 back last season.
Wu will take advantage of what’s likely the weakest event for three-time defending conference champs Minnesota. The Golden Gophers graduated their top backstroker and only put one into the finals last year. On the other hand, Wu’s arrival complicates a big event for Indiana, which racked up huge points a year ago in the backstrokes while trying to chase down the Gophers.
With NCAA champ Brooklynn Snodgrass in both backstrokes for IU, Wu will have a tough time getting to the very top of this conference like she did in the AAC. But only a junior, Wu should immediately be a power player for Rutgers, and should be in line to score a big chunk of their total points. It’s also very possible that Wu has a further-reaching impact on the conference, as she could affect the annual battle between Minnesota and Indiana based on how many points she does or doesn’t take away from the Hoosiers in the backstrokes.
Also in line to score for the Knights this season is now-junior Morgan Pfaff, who would have been 7th in the 200 IM and 8th in the 400 in the Big Ten last season. Sophomore Barbra Brottman and and senior Greta Leberfinger were championship finalists in the AAC, but both are just on the edge of scoring in the Big Ten based on their times from last season.
You can find the Rutgers schedule here. It’ll be interesting to see how this team fits in to the Big Ten, which has some pretty clear tiering of teams at this point. Minnesota and Indiana have been the cream of the conference for awhile now, and Michigan has been steadily rising since combining programs under Mike Bottom. Penn State and Ohio State are pretty well-rounded, while Wisconsin and Purdue are more top-heavy, but all four tend to stay pretty close. That left the last 5 teams (Iowa, Nebraska, Northwestern, Michigan State and Illinois) to scrape out points where they could in a deep, 12-team conference that only scores down to 16th place. That’s probably where Rutgers will define themselves – in whether their bubble swimmers can scrape out a handful of points here and there – but they also have the studs to potentially give the Wisconsins and Purdues of the world a run next winter.