It’s dangerous to try to gauge a consensus about a program like Purdue, where you’re likely to get answers ranging from ‘fringe’ and ‘inconsistent’ to ‘solid’ or ‘always tough,’ and everything in between. My impression of Purdue under Joe Tiller since its Rose Bowl season in 2000 has been of an occasionally mediocre, occasionally good team – good enough to be considered a contender for the league title in 2003 and 2005, anyway, to start three straight seasons in the AP poll and spend 27 of 31 weeks therein from the start of 2003 through about the first month of the ‘05 season.
In regards to its current popular standing, Street and Smith’s says "last season was one of the most enjoyable rides" in Purdue’s ongoing post-Tiller evolution from "chumps to champs," a rebuke to "critics who forgot one critical thing – what often happens to good programs after bad seasons," and surmises "a finish among the Big Ten’s leaders won’t shock anyone this year." Phil Steele covers the Boilers’ myriad close calls in 2002 (six losses by 26 points, four to top ten teams) and 2004 (five losses by 2.8 ppg!) and thinks this year’s team could match Tiller’s best win regular season win total (nine games in 2003). The Sporting News more bluntly asks, "Is this program declining?"
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In general, no, if an overall winning record and bowl game is the goal, then Purdue is not declining. But it hasn’t beaten a team with a winning record since eventual MAC champ Akron (final record: 7-6) in the 2005 opener, or a ranked team since flagellating Iowa in 2003, during the Hawkeyes’ brief Nathan Chandler phase. A few of the ‘winning’ and ‘ranked’ wins before that include Cincinnati, Wake Forest and Northwestern, and none of them – though Purdue hammered lousy Irish teams in ‘03 and ‘04 – represent a win over a competent version of Notre Dame. 2003 is an obvious high point, and just as obviously an anomaly.
Defense is undoubtedly the major problem the last two years, but it is interesting that "one of the Big Ten’s most explosive attacks" scored 0 and 3 points, respectively, in consecutive weeks against Wisconsin and Penn State last year and 7 in the bowl game against Maryland, the nation’s 84th-ranked total defense, while missing Michigan and Ohio State entirely the last two years. That sabbatical from the heaviest of league heavies was supposed to buy the Boilers a ticket back into the league’s elite, but it ends this year instead with them still struggling to keep their head out of the sub-mediocre ooze they crawled out of ten years ago.
I dunno, maybe 20 returning starters will finally take care of that.