Let me begin with a few caveats:
I do not believe Jeff Brohm will get fired after the 2020 season, nor should he barring some massive, yet unknown scandal.
I recognize that a large reason the 2019 season was a step back was due to injuries, and the 2020 team will still be an extremely young team at several key positions.
At this time I still have complete faith in Jeff Brohm as Purdue’s head football coach, and believe he is going to turn things around (and if he doesn’t it will cost us A LOT of money).
Finally, I do believe that the 2020 season will happen in some form or another, even if it does not start on September 5th as planned. I will leave my thoughts on everything going on right now elsewhere and just say I am being optimistic that yes, we will get football in some form this year.
Those things said, the 2020 season is a pivotal one for Brohm and the Purdue program as a whole. It is year four for him. We’re 38 games into this experiment and his predecessor got only 42 games. Year four seems to be the make or break year for a lot of coaches. Purdue’s last two head coaches did not get a fifth season. While Joe Tiller was here for 12 seasons, We knew Jim Colletto was going to be through four seasons (he still got six) and both Fred Akers and Leon Burtnett didn’t make it more than five years. Brohm is likely going to get at least five years, but we need to see at least some progress forward into what I think could be a huge 2021 season. It really feels a little like Matt Painter after the 2014 season. He has a big contract and the faith of most of the fan base, but it is still a year where we can start to question Brohm if we have a lackluster or even bowl-less season:
This Is Now A Team Of His Players
Take note of the following players: Semisi Fakasiieki, Grant Hermanns, Jared Sparks, Jackson Anthrop, Lorenzo Neal, J.D. Dellinger, Anthony Watts, Simeon Smiley, Dedrick Mackey, Mark Stickford, Brennan Thieneman (walk-on now on scholarship). These 11 players are the only scholarship players left that were recruited by Darrell Hazell. Mackey and Stickford were class of 2017 recruits that committed before he was fired, and the other nine are all that is left from the class of 2016. All of these guys would be on the projected two-deep if we were entering fall camp right now, but still, that is a small segment of the roster.
The nine members of the 2016 class are survivors of a class that rated 73rd nationally according to Rivals, 80th according to 247, and 61st according to ESPN. Since then we have seen Brohm improve in 2017 (68, 72, 59 in a shortened recruiting period), 2018 (49, 52, 46), and 2019 (26, 25, 25). He dipped slightly in 2020 (33, 31, 32). The 2019 class was, by a wiiiiiiiiide margin, the best Purdue has had in more than a decade, and the majority of it will be redshirt freshmen this fall.
It encourages me that Brohm was able to come in and even go 13-13 in his first two seasons with a patchwork of lowly regarded recruits, graduate transfers, and a Rondale. The gap of attrition from the 2015 and 2016 classes plus the inexperience of the 2018 and 2019 classes, plus injuries, seemed to catch him last season, but this year it is mostly his guys. We can’t say that we have a dearth of raw talent compared to the rest of the league anymore. I am not sure we could even use the “but he had Hazell’s guys” because he already exceeded all expectations with them.
How Does He Stack Up Against His Peers?
Purdue had a lot of choices in the fall of 2016 when it hired Brohm. Let’s see how some of the other coaches that changed jobs have done since then.
PJ Fleck – 23-15 at Minnesota
Matt Rhule – 19-20 at Baylor (has left for the NFL after 11-win season in 2019)
Willie Taggart – 16-17 in one season at Oregon, then two at Florida State before he was fired. Will be at Florida Atlantic in 2020.
Tom Herman – 25-15 at Texas.
Tom Allen – 18-20 at Indiana
Les Miles – Sat out two seasons and was 3-9 in his first year at Kansas in 2019.
Also, let’s look at some of the other top candidates we named back then:
Brock Spack – 22-15 the last three seasons at Illinois State. Reached the FCS quarterfinals in 2019.
Kevin Sumlin – 16-20 in one season at Texas A&M, then two at Arizona.
Chris Klieman – Went 29-1 and won two more FCS National Championships at North Dakota State, then was 8-5 at Kansas State last year.
Art Briles – It was a horrific and appalling idea to even consider him then and still is.
I’ll say it: Purdue is paying a lot of money for 17-21 when many of the other choices we could have had have done better. It is hard to judge Spack because he has never been a head coach at the FBS level, but Fleck and Rhule were excellent last season. Fleck has things looking very promising in Minneapolis after an 11 win season last year. Rhule parlayed his own 11-win season into an NFL job with the Carolina Panthers.
Taggart is an interesting case because he was only at Oregon for a year, flamed out in a season and a half at Florida State, and has fallen back to the Group of Five level. We were never going to be in the running for Herman, but Allen at has performed a small miracle by winning at eight games in a season at Indiana and actually getting the Hoosiers into the top 25 for a week. Sumlin was not going to be bought out by us, and he lasted only one more year at Texas A&M. It remains to be seen how well Klieman is going to be at the FBS level, but four national championships in five seasons at NDSU and 69-6 record is really, really good.
As we enter year four we really do need to see more from Brohm because his overall record is not great compared to the same coaches that were on the market then.
Can He Fix The Close Games Issue?
We all agree that the beatdown of Ohio State was one of the best nights in program history. It was still only one game, however. Since Brohm came to West Lafayette his teams have not done well in close games:
L 35-28 vs. Louisville – Couldn’t close it out with a fourth quarter lead (though Louisville did have Lamar Jackson, who is a decent player).
L 17-9 at Wisconsin – One of the best defensive efforts in a while against the Badgers, but couldn’t find the end zone.
L 14-12 at Rutgers – Just a turd of a game.
L 31-27 vs. Northwestern – Had two fourth quarter possessions down 4 and couldn’t convert
L 20-19 vs. Eastern Michigan – We had no business losing this.
L 40-37 vs. Missouri – Could not get a key defensive stop to get to OT.
L 47-44 vs. Wisconsin (3OT) – Blew a double digit fourth quarter lead.
L 34-31 at Nevada – A complete collapse in the fourth quarter in every phase.
L 38-31 vs. Minnesota – Purdue was down big, but came back.
L 26-20 at Iowa – A very late TD cut it to one score.
L 44-41 vs. Indiana (2OT) – A great comeback, but the defense struggled. Still was a dropped pass from having a game-winning FG attempt in regualtion.
In 21 of Brohm’s losses Purdue has been within a possession 11 times. Purdue has only won six games by a single possession (Indiana and Arizona in 2017, Iowa and Indiana in 2018, Nebraska and Northwestern in 2019). That 6-11 record can go any number of ways. First, after Hazell it is nice to just be within a possession of the other team (hell, under Hazell it was shocking to be within one score at halftime). If we’re getting close with his guys then logic states that improved talent can get us over the top.
That said, in each season so far Brohm has had an absolute brain fart of a loss (Rutgers, Eastern Michigan, Nevada). The next step is to no longer have those. Against Eastern Michigan, Missouri, Wisconsin, Nevada, and Indiana in the last two seasons Purdue has been tied or leading until literally the final snap of the game. It lost all five of those games.
Can He Fix The Offensive Line Issues?
Offensive linemen are probably the hardest players to develop. You need to put in 2-3 good years of work for most of them to be of Big Ten caliber unless you’re Wisconsin, who just has a field of 6’8”, 330 pound road graders behind Camp Randall Stadium. Well, it is time for Brohm’s efforts to bear fruit on the line. He has had luck with graduate transfers like Dave Steinmetz, Dennis Edwards, and Shane Evans. In year four Brohm needs to have at least some solid linemen developed for the future. Hermanns is a rock at left tackle and a four year starter. The other four positions are mostly up in the air, however. Stickford looks promising at guard. Will Bramel started as a redshirt freshman at the other tackle spot. Do we have depth though? It is time to stop relying on other schools to develop guys for us and develop them ourselves.
Can The Defense Just Be Okay And Get A Few Key Stops?
Brohm’s first defense in 2017 is a large reason Purdue had such a quick turnaround. It could actually slow teams down on the ground, get some key stops, and make plays. The last two years Purdue has struggled with getting off the field on third downs and against good passing teams. Bob Diaco was brought in after a divorce between Brohm and Nick Holt that had a lot of sniping on both sides. Diaco is basically changing the entire system, which could be bad or good.
Look, we don’t need to be the 1985 Bears. I don’t expect to be shutting teams out with impunity. I’d like to be able to hold teams to 20-25 points per game. Brohm is a great offensive coach. Last year he built a functioning offense with a walk-on QB, a bunch of freshman receivers, and a freshman running back. He could score 25 a game with the muffler from his Honda Accord, a trebuchet, and an Anthrop. It means nothing if we don’t have a defense that can at least slow teams down though.
Last season Purdue gave up 30.6 points per game while averaging 25.8 per game offensively despite having a freshman QB, then a walk-on QB for 9 of 12 games. In 2018 Purdue averaged 30.5 on offense and gave up 30.0. In 2017 it averaged 25.2 and gave up 20.5. Brohm’s offenses have not exploded like they did at Western Kentucky, mostly because the Big Ten is a damn lot harder than the Sun Belt. Still, I have faith that with Rondale Moore, David Bell, and a ton of receiving talent, plus a fixed offensive line, that unit can blow up. Can the defense be fixed and shave a touchdown off of that 30 ppg average?
So What Is Success This Year?
The freshmen and sophomores that Purdue has give me a ton of hope for the future. Moore and Bell are two of the best receivers in the conference. Jack Plummer showed promise last year. King Doerue was solid in the backfield and Tirek Murphy looks really, really good coming in. Defensively you have George Karlaftis, Cory Trice, and Jalen Graham looking great. Lots of redshirt freshmen could explode defensively too.
This is still going to be a young team, however, with a difficult schedule. We have two of the toughest Group of Five opponents you could ask for in Memphis and Air Force. I would argue that Memphis is a tougher opponent than Nebraska, Rutgers, Illinois, Northwestern, and Indiana from our conference schedule. Brohm also hasn’t exactly started seasons strong so far, going 0-3 in opening games. How does this youth handle a road game at Nebraska, two very tough non-conference opponents at home. Then a long trip to Boston College?
Danny Hope was 22-27 after four seasons while Brohm is currently 17-21, so a 6-6 year would have him on par with Hope at 23-27 going into a bowl game. His 23-27 would be a little different with the big Ohio State win and a few other good wins, but is it a huge difference? Hope didn’t get a year five. Brohm almost certainly will.
To me, I think Purdue needs a year where it shows that the 2021 could be a real breakout because of all the youth it has. Right now Purdue has three projected starters on defense that are seniors (Neal, Derrick Barnes, and Smiley), one on offense (Hermanns), and Dellinger as the kicker. If Purdue goes 7-5 or better with 8 freshmen and sophomores starting on offense the 2021 season could be gigantic.
It could also put a lot of these questions to rest.