EDITOR’S NOTE: Back in April, when it looked unlikely that college football could play a normal 2020 season, I pitched an idea to my editors to preview Purdue Football’s pre-COVID-19 2020 schedule in the conditional past tense. I wanted to talk about the things we would have — or might have — seen from this team after a season and offseason of unending heartbreak.
The series would have included interviews with coaches and players giving an inside look at how they would have prepared for games they were no longer going to play. It would have been the coolest thing this column ever did. But Athletics wouldn’t let me talk to the team, so I have to do it all myself.
This series will go through the schedule as it was originally intended to play out, released when you would have seen the actual preview articles for each of these games. At times, you may argue I’m not actually talking about this week’s matchup or expected outcome at all, just using it as an excuse to talk about the opponent. You may argue that I’m overvaluing Purdue in the name of being optimistic about something. You’re absolutely right.
Welcome to Randall’s Rambles Season 2. It’s only gonna get weirder from here.
Week 1: Sept. 5, Purdue @ Nebraska
The narrative has been the same every year since 2011: Nebraska is a strong outside pick to win its Big Ten division.
ESPN and Twitter pundits insist this is Nebraska’s year, the return to its mid-century glories. Last year, junior quarterback Adrian Martinez was tied for 3rd in 247Sports’ preseason Heisman Trophy rankings, behind Clemson senior quarterback Trevor Lawrence and Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. The team itself ranked 24th in the 2019 AP Preseason Poll, after going 4-8 in 2018.
Since joining the Big Ten, Nebraska has won a division title once, back when the conference was split into Leaders and Legends — Nebraska’s division opponents that season were Michigan, Michigan State, Northwestern, Iowa and Minnesota. Since then, the Huskers have had a handful of nine-win seasons in the Big Ten, and even a 10-win season the year they won the division. The rest have been losing seasons marred by disappointment.
None of this is to say Purdue has been any better in that stretch. The Hazell years were definitely a time, the Boilermakers are 3-4 against Nebraska since it joined the Big Ten and they haven’t been ranked at any point in that stretch. But they’re 2-1 against the Huskers with Jeff Brohm at the helm, so that’s gotta count for something. Oh, and they beat Nebraska with a third-string walk-on quarterback last year.
Purdue was coming off of a 2019 season that was akin to stubbing your toe, then falling onto a pile of broken glass, then rolling off the pile of broken glass and getting hit by a car. But there was hope. Players returning from injury, new talent rolling in, a new defensive coordinator and a special teams coordinator with a history of on-field trickery seemed ready to breathe new life into the team. All it needed was the right spark.
A road opener win against a division rival could have been that spark. The Boilermakers haven’t won a Week 1 game since 2016, and each of those losses was its own story. Between the 2019 opener’s heartbreaking field goal at Nevada, 2018’s Rondale Moore-athon against Northwestern and a 2017 loss to Louisville in which then-quarterback Lamar Jackson produced more offense by himself than all the Boilermakers combined, Purdue has consistently opened its season dramatically if not to the betterment of the record.
Flipping that script, unleashing a roster plumb full of talent and angry about last season’s disappointments and getting an early division lead would have been strong incentives for the Boilers to put Nebraska into the ground. Nebraska would have wanted an early-season victory to fuel the wild overvaluation of its team and avenge the last two years’ losses. This game would have been hungry, physical and exciting. Or it would have been slow, grinding and low on points. In any case, it would have been a clear tone-setter for both seasons.
It’s a shame we won’t get to see it happen this weekend.