PISCATAWAY, N.J. (AP) -The tents are up, and the grills are smoking.
The first game is still a month away, but the tailgating has already begun at Rutgers on a hot day in early August. Thousands of fired-up fans have filled campus parking lots and descended on the football stadium just to get glimpse of the Scarlet Knights, who are bigger than Bon Jovi in the Garden State these days.
From the attitude to the logo, everything at Rutgers is new and improved.
After years of futility, the state university of New Jersey had a big-time college football team in 2006. The Scarlet Knights won a school-record 11 games, including their first bowl victory, and even found themselves in the middle of the national title race for a few days in November.
Coach Greg Schiano, who started his tenure at Rutgers with four losing seasons, has steadily remade a program that didn't have a winning season in the eight years before he took over in 2001. But in many ways, the toughest part of the Scarlet Knights' turnaround lies ahead.
``We were the 12th ranked team in the country, but when you do it for the first time you can't really say you're a top-15 program,'' Schiano said. ``If we can do it over some period of time, then you become one of those programs that people talk about traditionally. That's the next step for this program.''
For a while, there was some doubt whether Schiano would stick around to take that next step.
Courted by Miami, his former employer, the New Jersey native used the Hurricanes' interest as an opportunity to test Rutgers' commitment to building a championship football program.
``It's good periodically to make sure that everybody's vision is still the same,'' Schiano said. ``It served as a great opportunity to talk to all the leadership, starting with the governor to our president to our board of governors. Does everybody still want to be the best in the country? Because as long as we do this is where I want to be.''
Rutgers showed its commitment by extending Schiano's contract through 2016, upping his total compensation to $1.5 million per year.
Although it's hard to compare programs, other recent turnarounds have shown continuity is key to maintaining success.
``I think being constant and consistent is the issue, and to me that starts with the coaching staff,'' said Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer, who took a program with little winning in its history and turned it into one of the most consistent winners in the country over the last 15 years.
Virginia Tech had played in just six bowl games, winning one, before Frank Beamer became coach in 1987. It took Beamer, like Schiano, a few years to get the Hokies rolling. After six lackluster seasons, Virginia Tech went 9-3 in 1993 and hasn't won less than seven games since.
Maybe the greatest turnaround in college football history was dubbed the Miracle in Manhattan. Kansas State was a mess when Bill Snyder took over in 1989. Snyder, like Schiano, methodically changed every aspect of the only major college football program to have lost more than 500 games - right down to designing a new logo.
The Wildcats steadily improved and in 1993 began a string of 11 straight seasons in which they earned a bowl bid.
For Rutgers, the goal is to be what Virginia Tech still is - a program that wins seven games in a down year and can contend for a national title in its best years.
``When I was being recruited, Coach Schiano told me two things,'' quarterback Mike Teel said. ``First thing, you're coming to Rutgers University to walk out of here with a degree. Second thing is you're going to be a champion playing football. You kind of looked him in the eye, and you knew he was dead serious. And he was going to do everything it took to do what he said.''
With 13 returning starters - including star tailback Ray Rice - and eight home games, the Scarlet Knights' are positioned to again make a run at the Big East title.
How's that for a change? Now Rutgers is expected to be good.
For the past few years, the Scarlet Knights have used their inglorious past as motivation to build a better future. Players such as fullback Brian Leonard and tight end Clark Harris had been through the lean years, and it drove them to make Schiano's vision a reality.
Most of those players are gone. Rutgers has 13 scholarship seniors on its roster.
Key players such as Rice, safety Courtney Greene and Teel have experienced far more success than failure at Rutgers.
In some ways, that's good. Schiano and his staff are past the point of getting the Scarlet Knights to believe they can win.
``I think there's a lot more confidence just knowing what we're capable of doing,'' Greene said.
But do they still have that little extra something that comes with trying to prove all the doubters wrong?
``Right now the guys are on a straight path,'' said Rice, a Heisman Trophy contender who ran for 1,794 yards and 20 touchdowns last season. ``It's all right to be confident but not get overconfident. It's all right to walk around with confidence and know that you're doing something well, but come back ready to work.''
Or as Schiano would put it, ready to keep chopping away.
``We're competing against ourselves to see how close to our best we can become,'' Schiano said. ``That's really the theme of our football team this year.
``Someday - I don't know when that day is, it may be this year, it may not be - when our best is (the) best that's going to be pretty neat. Until it is, we're just going to keep trying.''

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