About a year ago there was a steady amount of optimism in West Lafayette when it came to Purdue's most popular athletic programs. The football team was coming off of back to back bowl games and was seemingly rejuvenated under new hire Darrell Hazell and the basketball team had all the pieces back in place for what looked like a possible return to the NCAA Tournament.
Unfortunately for the Purdue faithful that all came crashing down almost immediately, with the football team not being competitive for almost the entire season as it stumbled to a low 1-11 mark. It didn't take long for the fan base to start making "is it basketball season" remarks as the fan base quickly gave up hope for the season thanks to the dreadful product the football team was putting out on Saturdays. Well things didn't get much better after a so-so start to the basketball season ended with a complete collapse down the stretch and a last place finish in the conference.
So now Purdue is entering a new season and will look to see considerable improvement from both it's basketball and football teams. That being said, though, even a sizable improvement could see both of these teams finish with disappointing results. At the end of the day optimism has returned to some extent, if only because things can't get any worse for the Boilermakers.
That leads us to the point of this article. A few days ago Thomas raised the question about who'd be more likely to win it all this season, Wisconsin's basketball team or any football team from the Big Ten conference. Playing off of that idea, I'm raising the question of who will be more likely to make the postseason first when it comes to Purdue's basketball and football programs.
Purdue Basketball 2014-15
A major reason why Purdue has struggled the last two seasons on the court is their inconsistency with scoring. A lot of that stemmed from the team not having any capable shooters on the floor and two inefficient volume shooting guards running the offense. Well now both of the Johnson brothers are gone and Purdue once again brings a sizable recruiting class that is ranked as the fifth best in the conference and 33rd overall. Included in this year's recruiting class include some depth for the frontcourt in center Isaac Haas and forward Jacquil Taylor, while Vince Edwards and Dakota Mathias could help provide a spark on offense.
Purdue will also return several starters this year, including star center A.J. Hammons, who chose to return to West Lafayette over declaring for the NBA Draft. Hammons is a dominating center that is a defensive force and just needs to polish his offensive game a bit. One of the biggest issues with Hammons was the fact that Purdue's guards struggled to feed him the rock and get him quality looks inside, meaning the addition of a new point guard (P.J. Thompson) could be the breath of fresh air the seven footer desperately needs. Adding a 7'2 center in Isaac Haas and four Jacquil Taylor will give Painter some depth on the bench, which should be an improvement over hard-working (but not very good) Travis Carroll.
If Purdue can find some production on the perimeter from sophomore Kendall Stephens and freshman Dakota Mathias it could go a long way in helping spread the court. With the departure of Ronnie Johnson the team will likely spread the ball around more and the unit is starting to look more like a team instead of a squad ran exclusively by two or three players. It should also be noted that the team has seemingly removed all of the bad seeds on the roster and is starting to enter "win now or you're gone" territory for Painter, putting even more pressure on the program to bounce back after a frustrating two seasons.
Purdue Football 2014
Well first things first, it can't get any worse in 2014. And it won't. Last season Purdue's schedule from beginning to end was absolutely loaded with quality opponents and the overmatched Boilermakers quickly packed it in as Hazell turned to his underclassmen as the program realized a bowl game was out of the question. While this led to plenty of growing pains, it also provided plenty of playing time across the entire roster and now there's decidedly more experience on the depth chart than there would have been otherwise.
Starting on offense and you may notice there's actually quite a bit of talent on the roster, especially from an athletic standpoint. Purdue will return starting quarterback Danny Etling who closed out his true freshman season as the starter. Etling had to hold off Austin Appleby after an impressive fall camp from the backup and likely earned the spot thanks to his playing time last season. Also in the mix is true freshmen David Blough, another notable quarterback that has joined the cradle of quarterbacks. All three quarterbacks were Elite '11 finalists and there's definitely quite a bit of young skill here. Etling's extended playing time last year should prove to be beneficial as he's worked on learning the offense and developing as a passer. Etling will also have the benefit of having two speedsters in the backfield, with Raheem Mostert and Akeem Hunt (who could see looks in the slot as a receiver) making up one of the fastest backfields in the conference. The team also has quite a bit of athleticism out wide with a young set of receivers highlighted by sophomore DeAngelo Yancey (17.1 YPR last year).
Of course none of that will matter if the offensive line doesn't improve. Last season's line was absolutely dreadful, paving the way for the 124th best rushing offense in the nation. They also couldn't protect the quarterback, allowing 2.9 sacks per game (112th in the nation). If the line doesn't improve both the passing and running game will suffer and that will lead to another long season for the Boilermakers.
The offense wasn't the only issue last year for the Boilermakers thanks to a defense that couldn't stop anyone on the ground or through the air. There's still some serious question marks here, mainly because the teams linebackers and safeties haven't shown that they can cover opposing teams receivers and tight ends in the slot (don't mention covering the middle of the field to Purdue fans...trust me). The secondary is highlighted by Frankie Williams, a relatively underrated corner that is now ready to be the guy with Ricardo Allen graduating. In the off-season Anthony Brown made the switch from safety to corner, looking to capitalize on his quickness (especially since he was a horrible safety incapable of making reads on passes and prone to getting beat deep). The linebacker unit has been laughably horrible the last few seasons but should see a major leap in the near future thanks to the addition of freshmen Gelen Robinson and JaWhaun Bentley, two of Purdue's more hyped additions this season. And while the line loses three players that got invites to training camp this season, senior Ryan Russell looks to lead the way on a line that has quietly produced quite a number of NFL players throughout the last several years.
So now that we've set the background here, which team will be more likely to make the postseason first? I think on paper everyone would assume the basketball program over the football squad, with most writing off the football program entirely. The biggest problem with that is that so many times peoples predictions on the upcoming season are solely based on the previous season. This is especially true for college football (think about it, how many times has a conference bottom feeder been predicted to go 0-8 or 1-7 the next year simply because 'I can't see them winning any games'?). While Purdue's football team was atrocious last year, their ability to get back to a bowl game will likely be decided by how quickly the offensive line can improve. A modest performance from the line and a bit of improvement on the defensive side of things and this team could sneak into bowl consideration.
I know, I know...that sounds crazy. However the 2014 Purdue team doesn't have last year's schedule and it will benefit considerably from that. This year's team will only play one road game until the second half of October (the Notre Dame game is a neutral site game at Lucas Oil Stadium) and that's versus Illinois. After only beating Indiana State last season Purdue should start off 3-1 this year with home matchups in the first month versus Western Michigan, Central Michigan and Southern Illinois. Avoiding any early upsets and Purdue would need to go 3-5 in conference play to make a bowl game. I'm not saying that will happen, but it's not as ludicrous as some people assume.
The Big Ten slate for the football program really isn't that bad, with the Boilermakers benefiting from the divisional realignment keeping teams like Ohio State and Michigan off the schedule. They did unfortunately land Michigan State in a crossover game, while having to host Wisconsin and travel to Lincoln to face the Cornhuskers, but that's the toughest part of the schedule. The road trip to Champaign is definitely a winnable game (Purdue had to do everything in their power to lose last season against Illinois), while the home finale versus Northwestern is another winnable game. Closing out the season is the battle for the Old Oaken Bucket and we all know rivalry games can be unpredictable regardless of who's better or not. Is the idea of Purdue beating Illinois, Northwestern and Indiana really that absurd?
While the football team could crawl it's way to six wins and play in a postseason where seemingly every team that hits .500 will likely participate, the basketball team could be several games above .500 and miss the NCAA Tournament anyway. The biggest issue for the basketball team right now has to be the schedule, which will be a considerably bigger challenge compared to the one the football team will face. There are definitely winnable games in the non-conference portion of the season, but some of the opponents are so inferior that the wins will do little to move the needle and will hurt Purdue's strength of schedule considerably. That means there'll be pressure to win in their more notable early season matchups and that's something Purdue has struggled with as of late. Even if the team continues their ACC / Big Ten Challenge winning streak (currently longer than any other team) against NCSU, it'll mean little if they get taken to the woodshed in Maui, a real possibility as they'll face Kansas State and possibly Arizona on the first two days. Even if they close out in Maui with a win over Chaminade and beat NCSU, Purdue would likely have to win at Vanderbilt and pick up their first Crossroads Classic win or else they'd start off the conference season in a hole.
That hole would be problematic as the Big Ten schedule starts off with Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin and Maryland in the first two weeks. There is the benefit of only playing Michigan State, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa once, but Purdue will most likely need to finish at least 9-9 in the Big Ten, possibly 10-8 or 11-7 if they lose too many games in the first two months, and that will be a struggle if the offense doesn't develop. And that's the issue, Purdue likely outed the bad apples and will look entirely different on offense...but can any of these guys shoot from outside besides Kendall Stephens? The last two seasons Purdue fans have simply rallied around the notion that recruits with strong ratings will instantly be successful upon arriving to college and that hasn't been the case. If the freshmen struggle offensively then who will score for Purdue? Hammons can only do so much on his own and Stephens has mainly been a perimeter option. Ultimately it would require someone like Rapheal Davis or Basil Smotherman breaking out and neither have shown that they're likely to do so just yet.
Purdue's questions on offense will be the biggest hurdle to reaching the postseason and is the main reason why I think the basketball program will ultimately struggle to get back to the NCAA Tournament this season. As for the football program, I feel like the schedule benefits the team greatly and they should win six games. Emphasis on should, though, as I see the football team finding a way to lose one or two games they should have won and wrap up the year at either 4-8 or 5-7. While I'm not entirely sold on the basketball team this year, I do believe that having Hammons down low and Matt Painter as coach means the basketball program will likely make it back to the postseason first, even if it's only the NIT (hey, that counts...right?).