Purdue Boilermakers (2000: 8-4)
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Coach and programIs Joe Tiller the best coach in Big Ten? You can make that argument. He has put together a four-year run surpassed only by Michigan's Lloyd Carr. But in some respects what Tiller has done is more impressive.
When Carr took over the Wolverines in 1995, he inherited an 8-4 team that had won the Holiday Bowl. By contrast, when Tiller came aboard in 1997, the Boilermakers were coming off a 3-8 season. Tiller is Captain Turnaround. He got Purdue to 9-3 record and an Alamo Bowl victory that year.
In 2000, Purdue reached the apex by tying for the Big Ten championship, the program's first league title since 1967. It reached the Rose Bowl for the first time since the end of the 1966 season. Tiller has put the Boilermakers in elite company. Purdue, Michigan, and Wisconsin are the only league teams to go to a bowl every year since the 1997 season.
The coach who other coaches in the Big Ten regard as a bit of mad scientist believes in his system. Tiller has created a monster. When all else fails, the pass is the first, second and third option. Purdue has -- by far -- thrown for more yards and more touchdowns than any team in the conference in the Tiller era. It's not a gimmick. The proof is in the success.
Can Purdue keep its string of success alive? Given Tiller's track record that seems very likely. Quarterback Drew Brees, the most prolific passer in Big Ten history, is gone. But Tiller won before Brees became a starter, so he probably will be able to win without him. The offensive system allows for a quarterback to be productive, and the defense returns all but one starter.
"We're going to be new at quarterback and we're going to be new at some positions offensively that will involve a lot of learning," Tiller said. "The question to us is how is an inexperienced offense going to fare? I hope we have enough success that we don't get discouraged."
OffenseFor now, Brandon Hance (6-1, 190) is the heir apparent to Brees. The redshirt freshman appeared in only two games, going 5-for-9 for 40 yards and a touchdown.
Hance has a solid prep background. The Californian was list as the ninth-best quarterback by Prep Football Report. In his senior year at Taft High School in Woodland Hills, he passed for 2,400 yards and 19 touchdowns and rushed for more than 500 yards and 19 scores.
But is he ready for the big time? So far the results have been promising. In the spring game, Hance went 27-of-47 for 310 yards with five touchdowns and two interceptions. He completed 11 of his last 19 attempts and was 6-of-6 for 99 yards in the red zone.
Hance will have the benefit of handing off to Montrell Lowe (5-8, 192). The junior is a nice fit to Tiller's offense. He rushed for 998 yards on 226 carries last year. That was the most yards gained by a tailback in the Tiller era.
Boilermaker receivers must be able to run after the catch because a lot of the routes are short- to intermediate ones. Returnees John Standeford, Seth Morales and A.T. Simpson all will have opportunities to showcase their skills.
Standeford (6-4, 187), a sophomore, appears to have a huge upside. As a freshman, he played every game and led all freshmen nationally with 67 catches for 744 yards. He also had six touchdowns. He should be the go-to guy for next season. Morales (5-10, 170) should also figure in the mix. The Butler transfer finished fourth on the team with 35 receptions for 556 yards.
At tight end, Purdue is pretty well stocked. Tim Stratton (6-4, 258) should be an All-Big Ten player for the third straight year. Stratton was third on the team with 58 receptions and 609 receiving yards.
Defense and special teamsAkin Ayodele (6-3, 253), a senior, is the best player on a Purdue defense that should be among the best in league. In just two seasons the former junior college player is already third on Purdue's all-time sacks list with 20.
Tackle Matt Mitrione (6-3, 281) is another senior who should shine this season. He was also a second-team All-Big Ten selection after amassing 47 tackles, including 13 for a loss.
Shaun Phillips (6-3, 252) is a promising young player. The sophomore was an honorable mention All-Big Ten selection after collecting seven sacks as a redshirt freshman.
In keeping with the rest of the defense, Purdue's linebackers emphasize speed rather than size. All three starters are back. Sophomore outside linebacker Landon Johnson (6-2, 212) is small, but has a big upside. As a redshirt freshman, he started 10 games and finished second on the team with 71 tackles.
Cornerback Chris Clopton is the sole starter lost on defense. The feeling is that the cornerback play should be as good or better as last year.
Sophomore free safety Stuart Schweigert (6-3, 202) earned Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors. He led the team in tackles with 85 and had 10 pass breakups and five interceptions.
Travis Dorsch (6-6, 211) is a large and in-charge kicker. The senior made 12-of-17 kicks and converted 25-of-27 PATs.
Bottom lineThis could a team unlike any previously seen under Tiller. The defense is loaded with good young players and the offense is a major question mark with Brees and most of the offensive line gone. Tiller's system has been productive before without Brees, but this will be his greatest challenge.
The belief here is that Purdue will field one of its best defenses in years and the offense will manage enough points to win. Tiller's track record on offense is too good not to expect a productive season from Hance. The Boilermakers will finish in the top half of the Big Ten and will make it to another bowl.