This fall is Joe Tiller’s farewell tour after twelve years at Purdue, more than any other active Big Ten coach except the immortal Paterno, and in relative terms -- if you were looking forward at his record on the day he was hired in 1997 -- his tenure has been an unquestioned success. Purdue was more than a decade removed from its last winning season when it lured Tiller from Wyoming, and his throw-first-ask-questions-later offense immediately surged to the top of the notoriously stodgy Big Ten. The Boilermakers won nine games his first year, played in the Rose Bowl three years later, earned ten bowl bids in eleven years (twice as many as in its previous 110 years) and pioneered the journey of the once-novel spread across the Midwest. More than a decade on, Tiller is two wins from setting the school record and it appears very likely that mulitple-receiver sets will dominate the league for the forseeable future.
But unless something very drastic and unexpected happens in the next five months, it’s hard to say Boiler partisans will actually be very sorry to begin the Danny Hope administration. As we speak, you can still read things at your local newsstand like "the Boilermakers should play with a lot of emotion" and "Purdue will be explosive offensively" (Phil Steele), or "If everything clicks, Purdue could even be a darkhorse to win the conference" (The Sporting News). But as I pointed out last summer, the actual record suggests a very different path:
* Based on final record
** Based on year-end AP poll
*** Excludes MAC teams
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The one win against a winning team in 2005 was a season-opening triumph over eventual Mid-American champ Akron (final record:7-6, 1-3 outside of the MAC, including a shutout loss to Army) and the two wins against winning teams last year both came via Mid-American champ Central Michigan (final record: 8-6, 1-5 outside of the MAC, including a 30-point loss to I-AA North Dakota State). So it’s safe to assume the Boilermakers could probably dominate the MAC, given the chance, but outside of the snuggly confines of nearby mid-majors, the losing streak to non-MAC teams that finished above .500 stands at 16 games since an October 2004 win over Ohio State.
Well now, that all depends, doesn’t it, coach?
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And the gaps in those games have only gotten wider. The offense scored two completely meaningless touchdowns in the final minute of last year’s loss to Michigan, a game they trailed 48-7; a week earlier, they’d also scored a meaningless touchdown with ten seconds left to escape a shutout against Ohio State. Subtract those 21 irrelevant points from the ledger, and their efforts against the conference’s "Big Four" -- Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Wisconsin -- have netted 3, 0, 7, 0 and 19 points the last two years. It’s a good thing the rotating schedule hasn’t forced the Boilers to play all four in the same year since 2004 (when, for the record, Penn State finished 3-8).
For what it’s worth, Athlon attributes this backslide to the Boilers’ "failure to perform up to its talent level," but they actually seem perfectly in line with Purdue’s talent level. From 2002-05, Rivals ranked the Boilermakers’ incoming recruiting classes fifth, fifth, third and fifth in the Big Ten, respectively, and ranked a dozen individual signees as four stars or higher. The last three years, they’ve ranked eighth, tenth and ninth, and signed exactly one four-star guy all three years. This looks exactly like what’s happening on the field.
The schedule is kind again this year, missing Illinois and Wisconsin, just as it did last year, after two years of leaving off Michigan and Ohio State in 2005-06 (although it does get tougher outside of the conference, with the addition of Oregon and must-be-better Notre Dame). Still, unless Northwestern, Minnesota (another team certain to improve by the law of averages alone), Michigan State, Iowa and Indiana manage defy to long odds and all fail to top 6-6 -- the permutations to make that mathematically possible are too obscure to consider -- the extension of that streak of futility in the face of competence will almost certainly leave Purdue to transition out of the Tiller era from the cold, lonely confines of a bowl-less Midwestern winter. Which is just about -- not quite, but very close, as judged by the fundamentals: recruits, hardware and general perception -- right where he started from.