Given the choice, I am sure a lot of first year coaches would rather see mostly mid-major names pop up in the non-conference slate in year one of building their program. In the B1G, that would include a lot of MAC programs that could be considered very solid but not on the level of what a B1G program should put on the field. Programs like Western Michigan, Ohio, and Toledo are all programs that are respectable and would provide Purdue with enough push to allow the team to grow into their B1G schedule but there are none of those favors for Ryan Walters.
Purdue will head into the 2023 season, the first under first year head coach Ryan Walters, facing a proverbial gauntlet in the non-conference portion of their schedule by playing Fresno State, Syracuse, and at Virginia Tech. When you could make a rather easy argument about the only non-Power 5 game you play could be listed above two of the conference opponents you play this season when ranking the strength of opponents, it says something about your schedule.
Last season, Fresno State went 10-4 on the season with a 29-6 victory over Washington State in the Jimmy Kimmel LA Bowl. Although they lost their games against Power 5 competition during the season, losing to USC and Oregon State, they got better as the season progressed. The 2022 Mountain West Champs will likely end up being a better program this season than Indiana and Northwestern, both of which play Purdue to end the season.
Syracuse, in 2022, beat the Boilers in Syracuse 32-29 en route to a 7-6 overall record but may take a step back after losing a fair amount of talent from that team that beat a Purdue team who couldn’t quite seem to get out of their own way. Syracuse lost their workhorse running back to the NFL and doesn’t return a lot of talent at the wide receiver position to be a consistent threat down the field. In actuality, this is probably the easiest non-conference game for the Boilers in 2023.
Sandwiched between those two home games to start the season is a trip to Blacksburg, Virginia to take on a Virginia Tech program who struggled in 2022 under first year head coach Brent Pry. This isn’t the same Virginia Tech program under legendary coach Frank Beamer who led the Hokies to thirteen double digit win seasons. Brent Pry struggled in year one in Blacksburg but he has infused talent at all positions and didn’t lose a lot of talent to the transfer portal. This should be a much better Virginia Tech team than what many saw in 2022.
If you are going to judge a schedule by simply looking at win totals from the previous year, you are going to find that it is an imperfect science because of the importance of the transfer portal and a schedule that features quality opponents like Purdue’s, it clearly elevates the difficulty. Sports Illustrated recently ranked the 2023 schedules on that premise and Purdue ranked 45th with an opponent win percentage in 2022 of 55.6% (85-68). This is largely due to Virginia Tech (3-8), Indiana (4-8), Nebraska (4-8), and Northwestern (1-11), and Indiana State (2-9), and FAU (5-7) going a combined 19-51. It is easy to see that these programs will all likely improve in 2023 with Virginia Tech in year 2 of the Brent Pry era, Nebraska getting what will likely be an instant upgrade in first year head coach Matt Rhule, and Northwestern likely not struggling to a 1-11 record ever again under Pat Fitzgerald. Needless to say, it isn’t going to be a good metric to judge the 2023 schedule on the 2022 schedule.
According to ESPN’s REM SOS, which is the remaining games on a team’s schedule, Purdue’s schedule ranks as the 17th most difficult in 2023. This may fluctuate as the season progresses and it is likely that it will as mentioned previously, it is unlikely many of the teams that struggled as much as they did in 2022 will do so in 2023. In fact, Purdue’s schedule ranks as the second hardest in the B1G West behind only Minnesota who will play B1G East opponents Michigan, Ohio State, and Michigan State this season along with ACC opponent North Carolina. They will also face very good Group of 5 opponents in Eastern Michigan and Louisiana.
But what should we expect from the Boilers in year 1 under Ryan Walters with a schedule as difficult as this one is? It really depends on how Purdue comes out of those first three non-conference games. We largely know what we are going to get with Purdue’s B1G conference slate in 2024. Michigan and Ohio State are going to incredibly difficult games while Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota will likely be their typical very good selves. Meanwhile, Northwestern and Indiana appear to be a step behind everyone else in the conference this upcoming season. So if Purdue wants to make a bowl game in this first season under Ryan Walters, the non-conference slate may be as important as ever to get there.
In 2023, Purdue can not afford to drop two of their three out of conference games and expect to get to a bowl game. Purdue will need to at least win two of those first three games to set the tone for a season that will get very long before easing up with Northwestern and Indiana to finish the season. If Purdue does just that, they will need to beat the teams that they are expected to in Northwestern and Indiana while stealing one or two victories along the way in the long part of the season against Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois.
Ryan Walters has enjoyed as successful of a start as a head coach at Purdue through his additions in the portal (the importance of getting Hudson Card is immense to the success of Purdue’s football program) and what we are seeing in the 2024 recruiting class (more on that next week). If Purdue does get to a bowl game in year one under this coaching staff, the ceiling will continue to be raised for a program that was all but dead just seven years ago.