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Nebraska Football

Hot Reads: We Need to Talk About This Year's Purdue Game

July 15, 2019
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Nebraska travels to Purdue on Nov. 2 this year to take on Jeff Brohm's Boilermakers and I feel like no one is talking about it.

I haven't been talking about it either. Want me to talk about how Indiana can be tricky? Can do and have done on a couple of radio spots over the past few months. I've talked about Maryland on some of these same spots. Purdue? Hasn't come up much and I haven't brought it up. In a year in which the Big Ten West is viewed as wide open, the Boilermakers get very little love (outside of Street & Smith, which has Purdue projected to finish second in the division).

There are reasons for that. First and foremost, Purdue lost almost all of the offensive production from last season that didn't come from Rondale Moore. The Boilermakers rank 124th in returning production on offense and that alone seems to be enough for people to hit pause on the miracle Brohm's working in West Lafayette.

Then there's the schedule. The Boilermakers play at Nevada (8-5 in 2018) to open the season and face two Power 5 teams (Vanderbilt and TCU) in nonconference play. Purdue also gets Penn State, Iowa and Wisconsin on the road. Not exactly an easy path for a team that's going to be inexperienced on offense.

Perhaps that's why the Boilermakers don't come up much when discussing Nebraska's schedule. Games against Colorado, Ohio State, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa have drawn most of the attention this offseason. Northwestern, given the history of that series in the Big Ten, never gets overlooked by Husker fans. Purdue, however, goes in the "other" category where it hangs out with South Alabama, Illinois, Maryland, et al.

It's a more dangerous game game than it is being given credit for here in July.

FPI gives Nebraska a 64.3% chance of winning that game. The S&P+ preseason rankings are a little lower on the Huskers and higher on the Boilermakers, giving Nebraska a 50% chance to win. The Superbook released its line for that game on Sunday and it fell near the middle of those two numbers. Nebraska opened as a 4-point favorite over Purdue, which comes with implied odds of about 60%. Even at the high end here, that's what I call toss-up territory.

I'm guessing that will be more clear by the time these teams play in November. Yes, Purdue needs to find a couple of running backs and the line, outside of the two tackles, is alarmingly inexperienced. By November, however, those key questions should have answers. (Maybe not ideal answers, but answers.) And there's still an experienced defense to lean on. It's not like the Boilermakers haven't been there before. The shocking turnaround in 2017, Brohm's first year, was a defense-led job.

But the biggest reason this game should be getting more attention than it has been is Brohm. The guy is a really good coach. This will be the Louisville native's sixth season as a head coach. Here are the preseason FPI ratings (these can be read as "X points better than the average team"), projected records, final FPI ratings and actual records for the previous five seasons. (Yes, there's a reason that I chose this particular measurement.)

TEAM, YEAR PRE FPI PROJ. W-L FINAL FPI ACT. W-L
Purdue, 18 5.2 5.5-6.6 6.9 6-7
Purdue, 17 -9.8 2.6-9.4 3.9 7-6
WKU, 16 1.0 8.5-3.9 11.4 11-3
WKU, 15 1.6 7.6-4.8 12.2 12-2
WKU, 14 -8.4 5.6-6.4 -3.0 8-5

There are only four other current P5 coaches whose last five teams have all been, according to FPI, better at the end of the season than at the beginning of it. Nick Saban is one. Dave Doeren and Kyle Whittingham have done it largely out of the spotlight at North Carolina State and Utah respectively. Scott Satterfield did it at Appalachian State, too. He's the guy Louisville went and hired when Brohm, an alum, turned the Cardinals down to stay at Purdue.

No coach over the last five years has seen his team improve by 10-plus points in FPI, preseason to end of the season, more than once. Except Brohm. He’s done it three times (2015, 2016, 2017), including the largest improvement at a P5 school over that span (2017).

I don't know about you, but I find this pretty remarkable. Think about it. We spend all this time at this time of year talking about how teams look on paper, what they could be, ceilings and floors, schedules and trap games. Through all of that, five coaches have had their last five teams all perform better than projected.

For Brohm, that's every team he has coached. Nebraska has to play that sort of head-coaching prowess late in the season and on the road, where Brohm's revival has nearly filled the stadium for two teams that were a game above and a game below .500. The year before Brohm's arrival Purdue reported 34,451 fans per game in 57,000-seat Ross-Ade Stadium. Last year the Boilermakers averaged 51,120. I'm guessing it will be a near sellout when Nebraska comes to town in November.

If Brohm's history of outperforming expectations continues, of course. I'm not betting that it won't. I'm also not trying to tell you this game is somehow more difficult for Nebraska than any of the more popular options.

I am saying, however, it's more difficult than it probably looks right now.

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