Purdue football can show progress with 1 of nation's toughest schedules, win or lose (2024)

Nathan BairdIndianapolis Star

  • Purdue football went 4-8 in Ryan Walters' first season as head coach.
  • The last three Purdue coaches and six of the last seven had losing records in their second season.
  • Several different publications list Purdue as having one of the toughest schedules not only in the Big Ten but in the country.

INDIANAPOLIS – Purdue football coach Ryan Walters confronts a common dilemma as he approaches his second season opener.

If your team legitimately improves, but the schedule it plays becomes exponentially harder, what qualifies as success? Across the country, analysts agree this fall's schedule ranks among the most challenging in the nation.

ESPN’s Football Power Index ranks the Boilermakers’ schedule 11th-toughest in the nation and hardest among Big Ten teams. College Football Network, which says it bases its "exclusive strength of schedule metric" on factors including portal additions, quarterback production and coaching staff continuity, also ranks Purdue's schedule as toughest in the Big Ten and seventh nationally. Phil Steele's annual preview ranked it the sixth-toughest schedule in the nation, though behind the two incoming California schools within the conference.

After a warm-up against Indiana State, Purdue faces Notre Dame at home and Oregon State on the road before embarking into the Big Ten. You know, the league that features both programs from last season’s national championship game.

Walters said last summer at Big Ten media days that he looks forward to, eventually, taking some of the teeth out of that non-conference slate. Yet something he said about that first-season schedule holds more relevance as he approaches his second.

“To go through a schedule like that, if you have success, people will remember,” Walters said last July. “You’ll be talked about and it will be special.”

Purdue swapped out only one of its previous West Division rivals. Goodbye Minnesota, hello Oregon. That trade alone would increase the degree of difficulty for any team's schedule.

Purdue faces Ohio State (away) and Penn State (home) on back-to-back November weeks. Both could be battling for playoff position at that point. What’s the upside? Many of the toughest games – Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Oregon, the Nittany Lions – come at home.

Great schedule for attendance. A Purdue spokesperson said last week the allotment set aside for season tickets has nearly sold out.

Not exactly a cakewalk back to bowl eligibility, though.

Walters did not sign up for an easy job. He did, though, sign up to maintain the progress made during Jeff Brohm’s successful six-year run.

To do so, he must avoid the second-year stagnation which afflicted many who came before him.

Each of the last three Purdue coaches – and six of the last seven – ended his second season with a losing record. Joe Tiller’s 9-4 record and top-25 finish in 1998 stands as the lone exception. (To be fair, Brohm’s 6-7 in 2018 only goes down as a losing record and a regression from his first-year record thanks to a Motor City Bowl loss to Auburn.)

The other coaches in that stretch – Leon Burtnett, Fred Akers, Jim Colletto, Danny Hope and Darell Hazell – went a combined 12-28-1 in Big Ten games in their second season. Some found a flicker of momentum in their third season. All except Colletto were gone by the end of their fourth.

Yet that second Brohm season feels quite relevant as the current Boilermakers brace for the approaching gauntlet. The final 2018 record included the historic upset of No. 2 Ohio State, another installment in Brohm’s advantage over Iowa and a crucial Old Oaken Bucket victory on the road to seal that bowl bid.It help up as the signature victory of his tenure. Plenty of opportunity for Walters to make a similar mark this fall.

That team did not storm out of the gate. It opened 0-3, including a dreary home loss to Eastern Michigan. Yet that team also showed Brohm’s system could not only compete with the best in the country, but occasionally topple them. A three-overtime loss to Wisconsin is as close as Purdue has come to beating the Badgers in the last 17 games spanning 21 years.

Fans could operate on more than faith while expecting better things in the near future. Despite a few slip-ups, Brohm’s second team provided evidence of traction.

However, this team can build momentum without a monumental upset of Ohio State or Oregon or Penn State or Notre Dame.

As of today, the sports books would likely make Purdue a road underdog against Oregon State and Illinois, and possibly Michigan State and Indiana. Yet it will not be punching above its weight class in any of those matchups. Throw in home games against Nebraska and Northwestern and the potential for avoiding the traditional second-year dip begins to materialize.

Yes, it would require consistency of performance. It would require good fortune with injuries or depth development to offset them. And even if Purdue accomplishes those things, it might also require a bit of luck to stay on the winning side of those toss-up games in the fourth quarter.

The wins must come eventually. Walters’ predecessors can certainly attest to that. For 2024, progress is about performance.

Purdue football can show progress with 1 of nation's toughest schedules, win or lose (2024)

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