The Purdue Boilermakers enter the 2010 football season looking for their first bowl trip since December 2007. Second-year head coach Danny Hope is coming off a 5-7 campaign that featured impressive wins over league champion Ohio State and at Michigan Stadium (Purdue's first win there in over 40 years)
It also saw ugly, turnover-plagued home losses to Northern Illinois and Northwestern, heartbreaking last-second defeats against Oregon and Notre Dame, and everything else in between.
For the Boilers to finally make it back to postseason play this year, they'll have to play with more consistency...and answer several pressing questions, including:
1. Who will be under center?
Heralded transfer Robert Marve is expected to run the Purdue offense in 2010 after coming north from Miami (FL). Marve, who started eleven games in a Hurricane uniform two years ago, has the edge in the battle to replace the gaudy numbers of graduated signal-caller Joey Elliott (3,026 passing yards in 2009), but hasn't officially been named the starter yet.
If Marve doesn't win the job, it could fall to returning backup Caleb TerBush, but all indications are that the Floridian has the offensive talent to make an impact in West Lafayette from week one.
2. Can the Boilermakers replace their entire defensive backfield?
Starting safeties Dwight McLean and Torri Williams are gone.
So are big-play cornerbacks Brandon King and David Pender.
For Purdue's defense to succeed in 2010, Hope and defensive coordinator Donn Landholm have the difficult task of filling not one, not two, not three, but all four vacant jobs in the defensive backfield.
The blessings of having a veteran-led group in 2009 necessarily lead to an inexperienced unit the following fall, and the Boilers are forced to hope their replacements (especially safety Albert Evans, who seems poised for a breakout season) can grow up in a hurry.
3. Is ATM ready to shine?
The Boilers suffered a crippling blow in the spring when leading rusher Ralph Bolden tore his ACL, and while Bolden hasn't officially been ruled out for the entire 2010 campaign, his participation seems doubtful at best.
Enter Al-Terek McBurse.
While McBurse only carried the ball four times his entire freshman season (and unfortunately, that's not a typo), his big-play ability could help Purdue's ground game pick up right where it left off, despite the likely absence of Bolden.
ATM, as he's known to Purdue fans, did handle the kick return duties for the last half of 2009 and found the end zone in the season's final game against Indiana. He has the combination of speed and power to pile up a lot of yards on the ground this fall, but it's imperative that he stay healthy.
Depth will be a key concern, with fullbacks Dan Dierking and Jared Crank the only other proven options (along with converted wide-out Keith Carlos, that is).
4. Where does Justin Siller fit in?
After bouncing from quarterback to running back to quarterback again in 2008, Justin Siller was bounced right out of the university for a violation of academic policy. Siller was reinstated last month, and is now a quarterback/running back/wide receiver, according to the latest Purdue roster .
It will be interesting to see how offensive coordinator Gary Nord chooses to use Siller's talents, with the guess here being a combination of receiver and Wildcat quarterback. (Siller was the Co-Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week after his first start at quarterback for Purdue in 2008, so his skills can definitely make an impact.)
At 6'4", the junior is hardly a prototypical running back, but the depth issues listed above could still force him into a more significant role in the backfield instead.
5. Can Purdue handle its opening assignment?
The Boilermakers kick off their 2010 season in what has often proven a house of horrors for the Old Gold and Black, Notre Dame Stadium. While a loss in a venue where they've traditionally struggled won't ruin the season, a win could prove critical in setting the tone for the Boilermakers' campaign.
Purdue follows up the trip to South Bend with consecutive home dates against Western Illinois, Ball State, and Toledo—not exactly Murderer's Row. If Hope's squad can spoil Brian Kelly's debut as Irish coach, they're almost certain to finish September undefeated heading into a rare mid-season bye week.
(Shockingly, this fall is the first time Purdue's less-than-brilliant schedulers have given the gridiron team a weekend off once the season began since way back in 2004!)
So without overstating the importance of a single game against the Fighting Irish, there's a real chance the season's first game could shape the three months to follow.
Suffer a blowout under the shadow of Touchdown Jesus in Week One and it could kill the confidence of a young team (worst case, setting up a potential September upset by a MAC opponent for the second consecutive year).
Post the road win, take care of business against the cupcakes, take a week off to regroup, and who knows? Purdue has a real chance (if they can win at Evanston in an October night game) to be 6-0 when they head to Columbus in late October.
That's why they play the games, right?