Nebraska was picked to win the Big Ten West division in a media poll conducted by cleveland.com leading up to Big Ten media days in Chicago.
Should Nebraska be the team picked to win the West?
I love these sorts of questions, so to answer it I need to look in detail at the other teams in the West: Northwestern, Wisconsin, Purdue, Iowa, Minnesota and Illinois. When I’m through breaking down all of them, I’ll pick a team and explain why they’re my selection to win the West.
I’ve already covered Illinois, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Iowa in my previous breakdowns.
This week: Purdue.
Next week: Northwestern.
Believe it or not, there are two stars of college football residing in West Lafayette, Indiana.
Rondale Moore is one of the most exciting players in the country and a legit Heisman contender. As a true freshman receiver last year, Moore caught 114 passes for 1,258 yards and 12 touchdowns. He ran all over Ohio State’s defense that one Saturday night, which you surely remember.
Moore’s head coach, Jeff Brohm, turned down his alma mater, Louisville, following the 2018 season and was rewarded handsomely for it with a very lucrative contract extension. Brohm is one of the brightest offensive minds in college football – right along with Scott Frost – and is really building something offensively that Purdue hasn’t had since Joe Tiller.
My biggest question with Purdue’s offense – which, under now departed quarterback David Blough, ranked fifth in the conference in scoring (30.5), third in total yards (443.9) and third in passing (307.5) last year – is the offensive line. That unit needs to replace three starters, which makes me hesitant to say the Boilermakers will replicate what they did on that side of the ball last year.
It’s not just the O-line, either. Purdue loses its top two rushers from 2018 in DJ Knox and Markell Jones. Sure, it’s not really the end of the world, so to speak, if Purdue doesn’t have a strong rung game because its pass-happy attack isn’t really interested in having one. But any time you lose veteran guys at that position, it hurts. It also should be noted that Brohm’s offense loves to give athletes the ball in space, and that includes screens and short passes, which act as extensions of the run game.
At quarterback, it’s finally Elijah Sindelar’s job – no more of that two-quarterback nonsense that Brohm played with when Blough was around.
I’ve always been a fan of Sindelar, who has unfortunately been injury prone for most of his career – he was even held out of spring ball because of a bad knee. I like him because he’s big at 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds. He’s got a rocket for an arm and isn’t afraid to show it off. And I like that he takes chances – although some Boilermaker fans might not so much because he’s had a bit of an interception problem in his career with 13 picks against 20 touchdowns.
But here’s my bottom line with Purdue’s offense: With Moore and Sindelar returning and Brohm calling the plays, I believe that offense should be able to at least keep up with other offenses in the West – if that O-line can keep Sindelar upright.
That leaves the defense. After being good in 2017, it was bad in 2018, finishing 11th in the Big Ten in scoring (30.0), 13th in total defense (452.6) and dead last in passing defense (284.7, which was also third to last in the entire country).
The positive for the Purdue defense is that a lot of its guys are returning – 12 of the top 14 tacklers are back – and plus it gets starting-caliber grad transfer ‘backer Ben Holt from Western Kentucky, who’s the son of defensive coordinator Nick Holt.
The returners include talented linebacker Markus Bailey (team-high 115 tackles and 5.5 sacks), safety Navon Mosley (93 tackles), linebacker Derrick Barnes (92 tackles) and linebacker/D-end Cornel Jones (who had the most tackles for loss 12.5).
With a lot of the pieces on that unit back, I can see the Purdue defense being better than last year.
Although I like what Purdue brings back overall (except that O-line), I don’t like its schedule.
The Boilermakers have to go to Reno to play a late-night game against a solid Nevada team Aug. 30. If they get out of there with a win, it doesn’t get much easier because Vanderbilt and TCU both come to West Lafayette next.
That’s a rough stretch to start the season. I see Purdue starting 1-2 before Big Ten play with that opening slate. I don’t see 3-0 at all. Purdue has road games at Penn State, Iowa, Northwestern and Wisconsin. Those will be tough.
If the new O-line gels quickly, and Sindelar and Moore stay healthy, and that pass defense improves, I can see Purdue as a dark horse West Division winner.