There has been too much negativity around here. Really though, can you blame us? Purdue has sucked the last few years. I am not talking about "Oh we piddled to a 5-7 season" kind of suck. I am talking about "worst period of football in the school history and we're a laughing stock" levels of suck. If you listen to any outsiders, more of the same is expected. The general consensus is that there has been improvement, but don't expect a bowl game and it might not be reflected in the record.
Well, why not?
Great turnarounds happen in football all the time. Surprises happen. We even had one with our own program 18 years ago, when Joe Tiller took a 3-8 team and flipped it around to 9-3 with a bowl win. Something like that would be wildly unexpected, but it is in the realm of possibility. So why not dream a bit? We have some reasons for optimism, so let's talk about them.
1. Year three is supposed to be The Leap
Bill Connelly's SB Nation preview of Purdue alluded to it:
And sometimes it's perfectly descriptive. A team struggles dramatically with a new coach in his first year (the Year Zero effect) then starts to figure out what it's doing in his second year. And in his third year, with a two-deep made of either seniors or his own signees, the program takes a healthy step forward.
There are about 100 different obstacles that can throw this happy train off course along the way -- injuries, costly recruiting misses, coaching defections, bad luck, random personnel issues, simple poor coaching -- but in theory, this is what you want.
He has a point. In 2013 Purdue could play with most teams for about a half. In the long list of blowouts Purdue was still within a touchdown at halftime against Cincinnati, Michigan State, Illinois, and Notre Dame. It was the second half where things really fell apart most of the time. In 2014 the Boilers extended that out to three quarters. Of the nine losses, Purdue was within striking distance in the fourth quarter against Minnesota, Michigan State, Iowa, and Indiana. It was relatively close to Wisconsin and Notre Dame too. Overall, the team just looked better.
So could there be another step forward in 2015? It looks like it.
2. I still believe in Darrell Hazell
With Danny Hope there was an excuse for everything. There were injuries. There was youth. There was a lack of speed. There was a lack of talent. There was a lack of support from the administration. Everything. Purdue has done a lot of losing in the last two years, but coach Hazell has always kept an even keel with a long view in mind. We needed a complete teardown instead of glossing over what was wrong. Glossing over things is what Hope did and it did not work. Hazell got into a giant mess and say it was going to take time and sacrifice to build something. Freshmen have played. A Lot. For the most part, he has stuck with his plan and if you step away for a moment you see there has been improvement.
3. The schedule is not as tough as it is made out to be.
Two seasons ago Purdue was beaten up by a ridiculously tough schedule that included a pair of teams coming off of a BCS bowl in the non-conference alone. It also had a conference champ (Cincinnati), three ridiculously good Big Ten teams (Ohio State, Michigan State, and Wisconsin), and other really good teams in Iowa and Nebraska.
It has been said that Purdue could be better this year, but have a 3-9 or worse record because of its schedule. Yes, it is tricky, but not as bad as two years ago. Marshall and Bowling Green both have very good offenses, but flawed defenses prone to shootouts. Virginia Tech's offense is positively prehistoric and, while they did beat Ohio State last year, they struggled to go 6-6. In the Big Ten we still play in the West, which is the easier of the two divisions. Minnesota is supposed to be better after losing its top running back and one passing threat? Iowa is supposed to be better? Northwestern? Illinois? Indiana?
There are places where Purdue can get some wins. The end of the schedule is nice too. You cannot ask for a much easier major conference slate in the final four games than Illinois-Northwestern-Iowa-Indiana. If Purdue just gets to that stretch at 3-5 it will be very much alive for a bowl game.
4. The offensive line should be solid, as well as the defensive line.
The pass rush is still a question, but up front on both sides will be Purdue's strength. If you believe in the adage that it begins in the trenches then it should be a good year. All five offensive line starters return and there is something to be said for continuity up front. There is solid depth there too. On the defensive side of the ball Purdue can rotate four tackles at will. If the ends come together, watch out.
5. We actually have Big Ten linebackers.
Most teams that have a 4-3 set like Purdue does should have a linebacker corps that sounds like a law firm if they are solid. Well, I'd like you to meet the firm of Bentley, Herman, and Ezechukwu. It is the first time in more than a decade that linebacker is not a glaring weakness. There are some very promising freshmen that get some time to develop, too.
6. This is a young team, but with experience.
Purdue has only 12 scholarship seniors. Of those 12, only Frankie Williams, Robert Kugler, Anthony Brown, Danny Anthrop, and David Hedelin are irreplaceable starters. Two of the 12 (Paul Griggs and Thomas Meadows) are specialists that are not on the field except in certain situations. There are plenty of reasons for excitement if Purdue can put it together and break through to a bowl. The 12 seniors get rewarded for their hard work and sticking around, while everyone else is back in 2016. A good year is a springboard for an even better 2016.
7. Austin Appleby is a leader.
I tend to think that Appleby is going to win the quarterback derby, and even though he struggled to close last year, I really like how well he played in the middle of the season after taking over as the starter. He now has some experience and he has all the intangibles you want in a quarterback. We don't need him to be Drew Brees. We just need him to be Joey Elliott and we're fine.
8. Coaching staff continuity.
It goes beyond Hazell. The entire coaching staff is basically in year three as a combined unit. Many of the assistants are getting rave reviews for their work, too. Marcus Freeman has done wonders with the linebackers. Gerad Parker has reportedly done very well with the receivers. Just about the only coach we question is John Shoop and, well, John Shoop at least improved some last year.
9. D.J. Knox Sounds like a breakout player.
I really thought Keyante Green was going to be the starting running back by default, but Knox has seized the position and is having a fantastic fall camp. Everyone seems to rave over his speed, vision, and toughness. He is one of the most complete backs Purdue has had in awhile, and that can go a very long way towards settling the offense.
10. It is a brand new season.
In a little over two weeks we will know what we have. There is no false sense of accomplishment by opening with some cupcake. Purdue is going on the road to face a very good team that is more than capable of blowing us out in game one. We will know immediately if this team is different. Two years ago Purdue faced Cincinnati in a similar situation and got drilled. This is another chance to prove what this team can do. If Purdue wins the opener, suddenly things look a lot more optimistic. Anything can happen too. Even marginal improvement from 2014 could mean a big step forward in terms of wins.