CHICAGO – No Big Ten team appears to have it quite as good as Purdue at the moment.
No, the Boilermakers don't boast the amount of talent or highly ranked recruiting classes that Michigan and Ohio State do. But the league's two premier programs do have plenty to be envious of when it comes to the engineering school that some have pegged as a dark horse to reach the national title game.
First, there is the veteran-laden personnel, with a league-high 20 starters are back.
"We have the most returning starters since I've been at Purdue, maybe since I've been a head coach," said Purdue coach Joe Tiller, who is entering his ninth year at Purdue and 15th as a head coach.
All 11 starters return on defense. That's the same defense that finished 14th in the nation in rushing (105.3 yards allowed per game) and 15th in scoring (17.2 points per game) in 2004. They were also among the most consistent units in the nation, giving up more than 23 points just once during the regular season and sparking a 24-17 upset of Ohio State in November, forcing four turnovers and holding the Buckeyes to just 108 total yards and three points in the first half.
"Purdue is good," Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said. "A year ago everybody talked about them having a young defense, but by the end of the year when we faced them I thought their defense was comparable to anyone we faced."
Purdue's trademark spread offense does lose two big stars in All-Big Ten quarterback Kyle Orton and NCAA career receptions leader Taylor Stubblefield, but seven starters are back from a unit that averaged 31.8 points per game last season. That includes receivers Kyle Ingraham and Dorien Bryant, who combined for 99 catches and 1,208 yards. And incoming freshman receiver Greg Orton, a four-star recruit, is expected to make an immediate impact.
The Boilermakers' 7-5 run in 2004 also showed signs they were on the verge of contending for the Big Ten title. No loss came by more than four points, and all five losses were by a total of 14 points in 2004.
"There have been so many seasons where we can say we almost did it," Purdue senior tight end Charles Davis said. "You could say the ball hasn't bounced our way, but you find yourself saying it came down to execution. One play, one missed block and one missed assignment can make a difference, and we know that can give us those one-point wins."
Improvement from senior kicker Ben Jones is also needed to squeak out those narrow victories. A semifinalist for the Lou Groza award as a sophomore, he missed some big kicks and went 10-of-18 on field goals last season.
An extraordinarily favorable schedule should also help. Purdue doesn't have to face Michigan or Ohio State, who were picked 1-2 in the league's preseason media poll. Iowa, which won a share of the league title last season and was picked third, will have to travel to West Lafayette, Ind., and the non-conference opponents – Akron, Arizona and Notre Dame – went a combined 15-21 last season.
"We have Michigan and Ohio State right where we want them, off the schedule," Tiller joked.
Still, despite all of those factors, Tiller says Purdue's level of success this season will likely come down to one player.
"I hate to put all the pressure on any one person but with all these pieces of the puzzle in place we will go as the quarterback position goes," he said. "If we perform well at that position, I feel we will be a better team than we had last year. I feel like we have Stubblefield replaced but it remains to be seen if we have (Kyle) Orton replaced."
Senior Brandon Kirsch, who saw action in six games and started two games last season, will be the full-time starting quarterback for the first time since his freshman season. Kirsch said he understands why such a large target has been placed on him.
"My play in the past has been inconsistent so I guess I am the only question mark right now," Kirsch said. "I welcome that challenge.
Tiller has slightly altered his offensive schemes to better fit Kirsh, who is more mobile than Orton.
"Brandon might not have as strong an arm as Kyle, but he can make a play out of nothing with his feet and he makes good reads and checks at the line," Davis said.
Davis, who will be a four-year starter, said this team reminds him a great deal of the 2003 team which finished tied for second in the Big Ten and went to the Capital One Bowl.
A repeat performance might be considered a disappointment in Boilermaker land this fall.