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Friday, April 26, 2013
Contender or pretender: Purdue

By Brian Bennett

We're taking a page from our friends at the ACC blog and examining whether certain Big Ten teams will be contenders or pretenders in the 2013 season. The series does not include Ohio State, Michigan or Nebraska -- three teams that, in our view, have earned the "contender" label entering the fall. For each team, we'll make a case for why they're contenders and pretenders and provide our final verdict. We invite you to vote on whether a team is a contender or a pretender or send us your thoughts for mailbags here and here.

Next on our list: the Purdue Boilermakers.

Why they're contenders: Many thought Purdue would be a sleeper team in the Big Ten last year. It turned out the Boilermakers got put in a sleeper hold when they played the best teams in the league. Still, this is a program that has been to back-to-back bowls and has given Ohio State everything it has wanted the past two seasons. So there is some reason for optimism. A coaching change should help, as the Boilers often looked undisciplined and at times sloppy under former boss Danny Hope. Darrell Hazell nearly led Kent State to a MAC title last year and has experience in the league as a former Ohio State assistant. He should instill toughness and improve the Purdue running game. Speaking of which, Akeem Hunt had a standout spring and no longer looks like just a track star. The Boilers have some nice options at the skill position with him and guys like Raheem Mostert, Gary Bush and Dolapo Macarthy at receiver. Kawann Short is gone, but Bruce Gaston and Ryan Russell are still strong anchors for the defensive line. If healthy, both can be among the best at their position in the Big Ten. And Purdue should be very good in the secondary, led by cornerback Ricardo Allen. A lot will have to go right, but maybe this is the year the Boilermakers actually fulfill that sleeper status.

Why they're pretenders: Purdue looked completely out of its league last year against Wisconsin, Michigan and Penn State, and it lost some of its top players in Short, cornerback Josh Johnson, quarterback Robert Marve and receiver Antavian Edison. The quarterback situation is unclear right now, as it appears to be a two-man race between Rob Henry and Danny Etling. Henry is experienced but has never shown a great throwing arm, while Etling is a true freshman. The Boilers once again look to have some major issues at linebacker, a position that Hazell will have to shore up through recruiting. There is also bound to be an adjustment period for a new coaching staff. The biggest obstacle to Purdue contending, though, might be the schedule: three tough nonconference games (at Cincinnati, Notre Dame and Northern Illinois) combine with a Big Ten slate that sees the Boilers open conference play at Wisconsin, vs. Nebraska, at Michigan State and vs. Ohio State. An 0-4 start in Big Ten play is a real possibility.

Verdict: We liked the Hazell hiring and think he will do good things in West Lafayette. But with the coaching transition, the potential of a freshman starter at quarterback and a challenging schedule, we just don't think that will happen this year. Getting back to a bowl should be the goal in 2013. Purdue is a pretender.