Hot Reads: A High-Stakes Opener Already Taking Shape
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Hot Reads: A High-Stakes Opener Already Taking Shape

February 24, 2020

Only 194 days to go now.

Today, Purdue officially begins its journey to that season opener at Nebraska on September 5. The Boilermakers open spring practice on Monday. It's the beginning of what, to an outside observer at least, looks like a crucial season for the long-term trajectory of the program.

You could say the same about Nebraska's 2020, which sets up a high-stakes opener the likes of which we haven't seen at Nebraska in quite some time.

In 2017, new head coach Jeff Brohm made Purdue better, faster than anyone could've reasonably projected. After going 9-33 over four seasons under Darrell Hazell, the Boilermakers were 7-6 in Brohm's first season. They were 6-7 in Year 2, but with a better overall SP+ rating. When Brohm's alma mater, Louisville, tried to pry him away before the 2019 season, Purdue made Brohm a $5-million-a-year coach. A young Boilermaker team went 4-8 last year.

Given the depths to which this program had fallen post-Joe Tiller, this math all adds up. Plenty of teams would love to have Brohm as their head coach. That's still a bigger danger to Purdue than Brohm failing to meet expectations, even with a salary that virtually guarantees that the .500-ish seasons early in his tenure will be a baseline going forward rather than the stunning achievement they were just two and three seasons ago.

The good news for 2020 Purdue is that it ranks high in returning production, the same as Nebraska overall, basically, but distributed more evenly across offense and defense. The Boilermakers also have three players almost any team in the Big Ten wishes it had––wide receivers Rondale Moore and David Bell and defensive lineman George Karlaftis. Those are just the notable names for the overall recruiting upgrade Brohm has engineered.

The bad news? Put all of that in a blender and, extrapolating from the initial SP+ ratings, that might still add up to the lowest projected win total in the Big Ten West. That's not gospel, of course, no projection is, but it is an indication of just how much hard work there is ahead for a Purdue program that everyone seems to agree a) has the right coach and b) has some singular talent.

If things skew towards the fighting-for-bowl-eligibility side of the equation, blame a nonconference schedule that, while fine whenever it was made, could end up being a tougher-than-it-looks draw. Purdue hosts Memphis and Air Force, combined winners of 23 games in 2019, then goes to Boston College. New head coach Jeff Hafley, off a wildly successful season as Ohio State's DC, inherits a team that made a bowl game. A bunch of virtual toss-ups in Big Ten play are sure to follow.

But that all comes after Purdue opens the season in Lincoln. Despite back-to-back sub-.500 seasons, Nebraska remains convinced it has the coach to get where it wants to go, too. The Huskers rank high on the returning productions scale, too, which can often portend a step forward, something Nebraska needs more desperately than Purdue right now. And there's this: Scott Frost has yet to beat one of Brohm's teams at Nebraska.

That's a pretty good basic setup for a game that's still almost 200 days away. Some things will change, slightly, for both teams between now and then, but the stakes really won't. Even if you try to weight for the inevitable overreaction that accompanies all season-openers you're still left with a game that could really impact both teams' respective seasons.

The Huskers haven't opened the season against a conference opponent since 2003. (Nebraska-Purdue is one of three conference games in the opening week along with Northwester-Michigan State and Indiana-Wisconsin.) That 2003 Nebraska team, unranked to start the year for the first time since 1969, beat preseason No. 24 Oklahoma State 17-7 in Lincoln. It was a springboard to a 10-3 season (which was somehow still the springboard to Bill Callahan, but no need to litigate that all again).

Since that 2003 Oklahoma State opener, where the Huskers were about a touchdown favorite, Nebraska hasn't been favored by less than seven in a season opener. It has been a 20-plus-point favorite 11 times over those 16 games.

The initial SP+ ratings would make Nebraska about an 11-point favorite over Purdue right now. I'm guessing the real line for that game will open closer to a touchdown, and we'll find out a few things from that, namely how Vegas may (or may not) differ from the offseason power ratings and then how the public feels about both teams.

It's just the start for a game that will probably tell us much more than the openers Husker fans have gotten used to over the past decade.

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