A random, too-soon look at Purdue's prospects next fall, sans the inevitable injuries, suspensions and other pratfalls of the too-long interim.
What's Changed. Not to put too fine a point on it, but there's a certain common thread among the Boilermakers' leaders in all-purpose yardage last year:
Note in addition to the seniors that Siller was dismissed in April, and the Danny Hope era certainly represents the fresh start it claims to be on offense: The Boilers lose a four-year starter at quarterback, 85 percent of their total yards from scrimmage and even the vast majority of their return yardage. Aside from the fairly pedestrian Smith at receiver, the only familiar face who figures to touch the ball on offense is running back Jaycen Taylor, an '08 injury casualty best remembered for the fully-committed mohawk he supported while splitting time with Sheets in late 2007. With Siller out of the picture, everybody else is a nondescript cog, anonymous at this point even to most Purdue fans.
In all likelihood, that also includes the new quarterback, Joey Elliott, who is not really new -- he's a fifth-year senior -- but has only taken a handful of meaningful snaps in that time. You can take Elliott's tenure behind Curtis Painter as a sign that he's bound to be steady and mature, or that he's just too limited to get on the field: Before his dismissal, Siller was expected to start in a completely different system that emphasized the zone read. It's hard not to think that a good deal of the emphasis on becoming "tougher" and "more physical" after more than a decade of "basketball on grass" under Joe Tiller -- Purdue finished in the top half of the Big Ten in rushing once in his tenure, in 2002, and was typically at or near the bottom -- must be at least in part because of the uncertainty under center. Post-Tiller, it really is a mystery offense.
What's the Same. By far, the strength of the team should be against the pass, on both ends. End Ryan Kerrigan was an intermittent force, logging three sacks against Michigan, two against Ohio State and another against Penn State, and there's a new coordinator, Donn Landholm, with the obligatory new-coordinator rhetoric about blitzing and aggression, etc.
More concretely, the secondary looks like an actual strength, maybe the only one on the team as an entire unit. Senior corners Brandon King and David Pender will be third-year starters, and Pender joined safety Torri Williams as an honorable mention All-Big Ten pick, as high an individual honor as any Boilermaker earned in '08. It was earned: Purdue led the conference in pass defense in terms of yards allowed, and though they were only middle-of-the-pack by the more important measure of pass efficiency defense -- largely a result of the low team interception total (10) -- the Boilers finished strong in November, clamping down on Michigan State (10 of 22, 2 INT, 0 TD), Iowa (8 of 15, 4.8 yds/pass) and Indiana (13 of 25, 2 INT, 3.7 yds/pass) in the last three games. Those weren't the most irresistible arsenals, obviously, but they are among the handful of realistic victories, and the rebuilding offense will take all the low-scoring games it can get.
Perception, meet reality. Actually, for its high-flying reputation, the offense frequently needed all the help it could get when it wasn't in rebuilding mode. It's one thing to lose 25 straight games to non-MAC teams that finished the season with a winning record, as the Boilermakers did during the Painter era from 2005-08, an ignominious streak that continues into this fall. But it's a little shocking just how much that once-formidable passing game went into its shell against the best teams on the schedule:
With a couple of exceptions, the defense held up okay, especially last year, when the Big Ten was hardly flush with explosive offenses. But the Boilermakers can't score. If there's any silver lining in the exit of the Big Ten's second all-time leading passer (Painter left trailing only Drew Brees in career yardage), it has to be that his successor -- whether it's Elliott or redshirt freshman Caleb TerBush or another converted running back running the Wildcat -- can't really do much worse in big games.
Overly Optimistic Post-Spring Chatter. On the headline front, Miami refugee/free agent Robert Marve chose the Boilers last month with an eye toward starting in 2010. More immediately, though, the offense's only realistic hope for a big-play threat is spectacularly named incoming running back Al-Terek McBurse, the only four-star skill player Purdue has signed in the last four years -- and his eligibility was up in the air until late April, a week after end of spring practice. With McBurse looking on in street clothes and Taylor still on precautionary ACL watch, the most impressive back of the spring was sparsely used Ralph Bolden, who averaged 6.3 yards per carry in three scrimmages. In this context, anyone whose name appears next to the adjective "workhorse," even in the spring, commands attention.
Best-Case. To me, this is a very, very vulnerable team in a transition year, but one thing about the Boilermakers until Tiller: They always -- always -- won the games they were supposed to win. As much as his teams struggled against winners, they were equally consistent in beating losers and lower-division filler. So in that respect, they continue to get the benefit of the doubt in a handful of games that could get them close to bowl eligibility: Toledo, Northern Illinois, Indiana and some combination of Northwestern, Minnesota and Michigan. If it takes care of business against the dregs and delivers in two of three against the Wildcats, Gophers and Wolverines, that's 5-7, a step forward from last year with apparently fewer resources on hand.
Worst-Case. Remember when Minnesota went 1-11 in Tim Brewster's first year in 2007? On paper, this team looks worse than that one (though the offense is more likely to collapse, as opposed to the Gophers' all-time horror show of a defense that year). Granted, there must be two wins between Toledo, Northern Illinois and Indiana. The Boilers will almost certainly be underdogs in their first seven Big Ten games before the finale at IU, though, not to mention Oregon and Notre Dame outside of the league, and if they find a way to lose in Bloomington, an 0-8 conference season is not at all out of the question.
Non-Binding Forecast. This would be a perfect year for a complete cupcake lineup outside of the league; three or four more or less automatic wins, combined with a win over the Hoosiers and an upset or two would be a perfectly respectable season under the circumstances. With near-certain beatings at the hands of the Ducks and Irish, though, and at least six conference losses -- again, any win other than Indiana seems like an upset on paper -- another 4-8 or even 3-9 season is probably in order. If things go badly in the opener against Toledo, rock-bottom can't be far away.