The more I write, read and think about college football, the more I come to a single, thrilling, frustrating conclusion: you are not in control.
You, the fan, are absolutely not in control. That goes without saying. Your satisfaction level is going to be determined as much by the family (and school, and region) into which you were born and by the decision-making ability of the really rich people that run your chosen (born) school's athletic department. If you were born in Boise, into a family full of University of Idaho grads, you probably haven't had a very satisfactory college football life. But if you were born in Tuscaloosa, to a doctor screaming "ROLL TIDE!" you probably think you are entitled to nothing but the most immense football satisfaction.
You, the college football coach, do have at least a little more control. But considering how much love and hostility you are opening yourself up to by choosing your profession, really, you are still not in control. You cannot control when one of your 85 foster sons chooses to do something stupid, either on the field or off of it. You cannot control the degree of said stupidity. You cannot control which of the hundreds of recruiting battles you will face will actually matter the most, i.e. which two-star athlete will become a true diamond in the rough, or which five-star stud will turn out to be a bust. You cannot control the weather that might affect a specific kick (or pass, or slip, or bobble, or sprain) in a specific game.
You also cannot control who else decides to be good when you put everything together. Bobby Petrino's 2011 Arkansas team very well could have been a national title contender in, say, 2007. But because it came around in 2011, it finished a distant third in the SEC West. The 2009 Cincinnati Bearcats, meanwhile, might have reached the national title game in 2007, 2008 or 2011; instead, they finished undefeated in a year when two other, bigger names, also managed the feat. And on the flipside, any number of 2007 teams -- Missouri, Kansas, West Virginia, and for a while even teams like Boston College and South Florida -- found themselves in the national title hunt because of other, crazy events. If those exact teams had taken the field in other years, they'd have perhaps never sniffed the top five. You, the college football coach, don't have as much control over the quality of your own team as you (and others) might want to think; but you have even less control over what else goes on around you.
Purdue should know this as well as anybody. Their crowning achievement, the 2000 Big Ten title and subsequent Rose Bowl bid, might not have happened if Drew Brees had been a couple of years younger or older. Instead of making their best coaching hire in decades (Joe Tiller), they could have easily gone with somebody else -- Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Davie, New Mexico head coach Dennis Franchione -- and nobody would have blinked an eye. And with the right team in place, they could compete for a Leaders Division crown in 2012.
I am cautiously optimistic that we might sneak into the Big Ten title game. It will take some luck, but OSU is ineligible, Penn State and Illinois just changed coaches and are in disarray, and IU is still IU. That leaves Wisconsin, whom I think is the heavy favorite in the division. If we beat Penn State at home and shock Wisconsin, who knows what will happen. We might slide into the title game at 6-2 or even 5-3 (losing to OSU, Michigan, and Iowa) with some help at that point because of OSU's issues. Sure, it might be through the crawl space instead of the back door, but I'd take it.
Knowing how little actually changes as college football's history progresses, one assumes that in most seasons, Ohio State will control the narrative in the Leaders Division, with Wisconsin and Penn State making some noise quite often. Barring significant change in the long-term hierarchy, the opportunities for the other three programs -- Indiana, Illinois and Purdue -- will be based as much on what happens to the three current "ruling" programs as any other factor. But opportunity does seem to be, however temporarily, presenting itself for the Boilers in 2012. Do they have the team to capitalize? Well, probably not, but keep reading anyway.
Things got comical in 2010 -- Purdue's starting quarterback played barely over three games before being lost for the season. The backup got hurt as well. Their most frequently-targeted receiver lasted less than two. Their starting running back? Zero. All of them were lost to knee injuries, and almost directly as a result, Purdue's offense was absolutely, positively dreadful over the final two months of the 2010 season. It's hard to actually figure out what the Boilers are capable of in 2011 because what they produced in 2010 was so different than what they might have produced in an alternate universe where they don't go through skill position players like Pez or Spinal Tap drummers. I'm just amazed that Robbie Hummel doesn't play football. […]
At Football Outsiders, we don't yet have a way to capture the number of games lost to injuries, but until proven otherwise, I'm just going to assume Purdue was the national leader in the category. A program that had reliably fluctuated on either side of the F/+ Mendoza line (+0.0%) suddenly collapsed under the weight of their M*A*S*H unit. In and of itself, that suggests Purdue could rebound quite a bit since no one gets obliterated by injuries (of both the silly and less than silly variety) every year, right?
Leaving injuries aside, the Boilers return a healthy number of starters, and their YPP margin and Adj. TO Margin both suggest that they were unlucky in this regard (okay, in every regard) last year. If the COTG is done messing with Boiler fans, Purdue could be well positioned (in other words, they're semi-experienced and in possession of a rather easy schedule) to at least return to bowl eligibility in 2011.
Technically speaking, Purdue did indeed bounce back. The Boilermakers improved from 87th to 73rd in the F/+ rankings and, as expected, jumped from 112th to 85th in Off. F/+. Despite an impressive 85 tackles for loss, however, the defense collapsed from 39th in Def. F/+ to 70th, tamping down the overall gains. In a season that really had no momentum, positive or negative, Purdue lost a game they should have won (Rice 24, Purdue 22), won a game they probably should have lost (Purdue 26, Ohio State 23), and put on one hell of a show in one of the more fun games of bowl season (Purdue 37, Western Michigan 32). In all, it was a year that was both forgettable and occasionally fun. And in an effort to avoid lame-duck status, it earned head coach Danny Hope a two-year contract extension.
* I COMPLETELY forgot that I had written this when I wrote basically the same "sold souls" intro for this year's Colorado piece. Narratives begin to blend together after a while.
Injuries have created circumstances in West Lafayette so rare that not even Colorado can match them: for all intents and purposes, Purdue returns three starting quarterbacks.
2. Rob Henry. The junior took over for Marve in 2010 and played well, then tore HIS ACL in the offseason.
3. Caleb TerBush. A backup at times to both Marve and Henry, he took over and performed competently for much of 2011.
In 2012, Marve and TerBush will both be seniors, Henry a junior. And incredibly, all three bring a different style to the table. Henry is a run-first guy who, assuming full health (and indications are that he should be 100 percent) could find action this fall whether he wins the starting job or not -- if nothing else, the fact that Purdue used receiver Justin Siller in a "WildSiller" type of formation last fall suggests that they will figure out things to do with Henry, who passed better in 2010 than Marve did in 2011.
TerBush is a pass-first quarterback who is probably the most consistent passer of the three. He will still tuck and run (he had 62 non-sack carries for 317 yards in 2011), but he isn't Henry in that regard. TerBush is the least likely of the three to make a big play of either the good or bad variety. Marve, meanwhile, is basically a wildcard. He has, at times, shown remarkable upside, but he didn't show much in 2011.
We don't yet know who will win the starting job, and recent history suggests that more than one quarterback will play, anyway, either because of injury or platoon situations. We do, however, know this: with Purdue, it's all-hands-on-deck. Offensive coordinator Gary Nord, the former UTEP head coach now in his fourth season in charge of Danny Hope's offense, will get the ball to potential playmakers by any means necessary. Last season, nine different Purdue players scored at least one rushing touchdown; everybody got into the mix -- quarterbacks (TerBush and Marve each scored one, while Henry scored four in 2010), receivers (two for both Antavian Edison and Raheem Mostert), and oh yeah, running backs as well. Purdue's offense is unique in the way the ball is distributed; receivers will carry the ball four or five times per game, while running backs and tight ends will each be targeted with about four passes per game. This is a smart thing to do when you a) don't have a single spectacular offensive player, and b) you have quite a few similarly-talented guys. You might as well use that to your advantage, and Purdue does reasonably well in this regard.
If this socialist ball distribution changes in 2012, however, it might be for good reason: if running backs Akeem Shavers and Akeem Hunt live up to the ceilings they defined last year, there might not be a need to give the ball to others. Shavers, a senior, ripped off 22 carries for 149 yards in the bowl win over Western Michigan, while Hunt, a sophomore, carried 14 times for 138 yards in the final two games of the season. The two produced the best Adj. POE figures on the team (combined: 143 carries, 798 yards, eight touchdowns, plus-7.7 Adj. POE), and they should make sure that the running back position is in good hands even if one-time starter Ralph Bolden's status is uncertain after an April arrest and yet another knee injury last fall. The blocking they receive from the line shouldn't change much -- the Boilermakers do lose two longtime starters (Dennis Kelly and Nick Mondek combined for 62 career starts), but four players with starting experience return (49 career starts), and honestly, the line wasn't great anyway, so there's not much regression possible.
At receiver, Antavian Edison leads the way; he alternated between excellent (22 targets, 16 catches, 202 yards versus Notre Dame and Iowa) and invisible (four targets, one catch, minus-3 yards versus Wisconsin) in 2011.
Boasting one of the most explosive linemen in the country (Kawann Short, with his 17 tackles for loss), Purdue ranked 31st in Adj. Line Yards in 2011. You could not move the line much. The problem: you could move everybody else just fine. Despite Short, and despite making quite a few plays behind the line of scrimmage overall, Purdue's defense regressed horribly last fall: from 43rd to 63rd in Rushing S&P+ (despite solid line play), from 40th to 81st in Passing S&P+, and from 10th to 83rd in Adj. Sack Rate.
It should probably surprise no one, then, that Purdue got itself a new defensive coordinator for 2012. In comes Tim Tibesar, the 39-year old former defensive coordinator of the CFL's Montreal Alouettes (and an all-around smart guy, apparently) who will apparently be attempting to move in the direction of a 3-4 defense despite a complete and utter lack of interesting linebackers. Expect Purdue to play multiple sets this fall until Tibesar gets the personnel he needs to run what he wants.
The good news is that a move toward three down linemen should not impact Short's effectiveness at all -- he's big enough to handle the move (6'3, 310), and he's good enough to become a playmaker from just about anywhere. Disruptive defensive tackles are just about the rarest, most valuable goods in college football. Purdue has one, and that's great. But what they have everywhere else is a concern.
They do return linebacker Will Lucas, a speedy outside presence who racked up 10 tackles for loss and forced two fumbles last fall. He should translate well to 3-4 outside linebacker. So that's one. But of the four other returning linebackers who made at least one tackle last year, none made any tackles behind the line of scrimmage. There is an opportunity for a youngster like redshirt freshman Armstead Williams to earn some immediate playing time if ready; and there are younger, lighter guys like three-star sophomore Joe Gilliam (211 pounds) who, if we were to generalize, could be built for speed. But it is very difficult to find known entities in the front seven outside of Short, Lucas, tackle Bruce Gaston (seven tackles for loss) and perhaps sophomore end Ryan Russell, who played very well at the end of 2011.
In the secondary, there are at least a couple more known entities. Corner Ricardo Allen was asked to make far too many tackles against the run (he was second on the team with 71.5 tackles overall), but he had his moments -- three tackles for loss, three interceptions, four passes broken up. His counterpart, Josh Johnson (4.5 tackles for loss, two picks, nine passes broken up) was even more of a playmaker. Both starting safeties are gone, however, and the two leading returning safeties, Max Charlot and Landon Feichter, are an unrated junior college transfer and a former walk-on, respectively. Walk-ons make for good stories, but they aren't typically filled with wonderful upside. It would help tremendously if a pair of three-star sophomores, Taylor Richards and E.J. Johnson, were ready to step up.
Purdue fans might be talking themselves into a darkhorse division title run, but the success-or-not bar should probably be set a little lower. With home games versus Eastern Kentucky, Eastern Michigan, Marshall and Indiana, the Boilers should be able to pretty easily get two-thirds of the way toward bowl eligibility. But after that, there are no sure wins. Michigan, Wisconsin and Penn State all visit Ross-Ade Stadium, where Purdue was clearly pretty stout last year, and trips to Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois are not amazingly intimidating. But conservatively speaking, with odd quarterback issues and a particularly questionable linebacking corps, I'm inclined to set the bar around six or seven wins.
The timing of opportunity is not always what you want it to be. Purdue's division is absolutely in flux this season, and a good Purdue team could absolutely challenge for the conference title game. But it is hard to see them ready for such a move. And that's unfortunate, because even though they have some interesting young pieces in place (Rob Henry, Akeem Hunt, Joe Gilliam, Ryan Russell), the window of opportunity in the division may have closed by the time Hope engineers a peak, whatever that is. And the odds that last year was the peak are just as good as the Boilermakers sneaking out of 2012 with a division title.
While we’re here, let’s watch some college football videos from SB Nation’s new YouTube channel together: