With the season opener against the Toledo Rockets only a few days away, Purdue's football program is finally ready to kick off the Danny Hope era. The Boilermakers are looking for better things this fall after finishing a disappointing 4-8 a year ago in Joe Tiller's final season at the helm.
Things are a bit different in 2009: Tiller is relaxing on his ranch, record-setting quarterback Curtis Painter is holding Peyton Manning's clipboard in Indianapolis, every offensive player Purdue fans have ever heard of seems to be out of eligibility, Boilermaker supporters are still learning the names of brand-new offensive and defensive coordinators (Gary Nord and Donn Landholm), and Hope inherits a cupboard that is somewhere between bare and not even built yet.
If Hope and the Boilers are going to surprise the Big Ten and sneak into a bowl game in 2009, it will have a lot to do with the experienced defense. Purdue welcomes back its entire secondary after leading the league in fewest passing yards allowed last season (although that had a lot more to do with the Boilermakers' horrible run defense than anything else).
Throw in a healthy Jason Werner to lead the improving linebacker corps, which will have some depth for the first time in recent memory (thanks to freshmen Dwayne Beckford and Antwon Higgs) and the back seven looks to be the strength of this football team.
If defensive linemen Mike Neal and Ryan Kerrigan can live up to expectations and continue Purdue's recent trend of pass-rushing standouts, the Boilers' D could be downright stingy in 2009.
Whether that will be enough to win games remains to be seen, which brings us to the rebuilding offense. The good news (there's precious little, so we'll start there) is the experience on the offensive line.
The Boilers should be able to provide some protection for their quarterback, a fifth-year senior named Joey Elliott who will be making his first start against the Rockets this weekend.
Elliott has potential to be more than adequate at the controls of the Boilermaker offense; he challenged for Painter's starting job last year and led a pair of impressive drives at Michigan the season before (when Purdue's first string had been unable to muster many yards or points). The real question is who Elliott will be throwing to.
Purdue lost almost all of its top receivers from a year ago, including talents like Greg Orton and Desmond Tardy. Wideouts Aaron Valentin (pictured above) and Keith Smith will have to make great strides in 2009 for Purdue to stretch the field vertically.
The pair of returners are joined by Royce Adams (a converted cornerback), junior college transfer Keith Carlos, and freshmen Gary Bush and Antavian Edison on the wide receiver two-deeps.
Tight end appears to be a position of strength as junior Kyle Adams returns after missing almost all of last season. From all accounts, Nord's offense is built around a lot of throws to the tight end, and Purdue fans would love to see Adams tally numbers similar to past standouts Tim Stratton and Dustin Keller.
Coach Hope has made no secret of wanting to run the ball more out of the Boilers' familiar shotgun spread, and Jaycen Taylor's recovery from knee surgery will have a lot to do with that. Taylor is currently trailing speedy sophomore Ralph Bolden on the depth chart, but both players will need to produce to keep blitzing defenses from teeing off on Elliott.
Dan Dierking, star recruit Al-Terek McBurse, and fullbacks Frank Halliburton and Jared Crank provide a good deal of backfield depth, which will come in handy for some of the two-back sets Purdue is expected to debut. (Yes, Boilermaker fans, take a deep breath, there will be more than one player in the backfield at a time. I know this is a great adjustment and will require some time to get used to. Start now.)
Special teams have been a thorn in Purdue's side for as long as I've watched them play. On paper, this unit is solid with placekicker Carson Wiggs' big leg and punter Chris Summers' offseason improvement. Whether that translates into consistent performance is one of the many questions facing the Boilers in 2009.
So what's the verdict? How will this team finish? Can Purdue sneak into a bowl?
The non-conference schedule includes a pair of MAC teams at home (Toledo and Northern Illinois), a treacherous trip to Oregon, and a matchup with Notre Dame at Ross-Ade Stadium. 2-2 heading into Big Ten play is likely, although neither MAC win is a guarantee and an upset of Notre Dame is at least theoretically possible.
For the Boilers to reach a bowl game in Hope's first season, they'll probably need to win four conference games, and it's hard to see that happening. They get most of the league's upper-division teams (Ohio State, Illinois, and Michigan State) at home, which actually makes things difficult.
Barring a few upsets at Ross-Ade, finding road wins becomes very crucial—not necessarily a great equation for a young, inexperienced offense. Ultimately, the success of Purdue's 2009 season will be decided in other conference stadiums, so stay tuned to see if the "Spoilermakers" can steal a few games from the Gophers, Badgers, Wolverines, and Hoosiers.
Danny Hope will be hard pressed to match Joe Tiller's excellent record in West Lafayette, which included ten bowl trips in twelve years. However, he can top his predecessor in one category this week: Tiller lost his first game as Purdue coach in 1997 to Toledo.
Boilermaker fans "hope" things are different this time around.
Week One prediction: Purdue 30, Toledo 23.
Season prediction: Purdue finishes 5-7, 3-5 in Big Ten play.
For more Big Ten football coverage from Bleacher Report writer Tim Cary, visit www.FirstandBigTen.com. Tim will be in the Ross-Ade Stadium press box this Saturday to report on Danny Hope's first game for B/R and FBT.