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CHICAGO, Ill. -- Could Purdue win the Big Ten's Leader's Division and earn a trip to December's conference championship game in Indianapolis?
Coach Danny Hope said all things are possible. The Boilers return a conference-best 19 starters. Two of the six teams in the division, Penn State and Ohio State, are ineligible for the postseason because of NCAA sanctions. That leaves Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana as the other contenders.
Hope said during the Big Ten football kickoff event that the ineligibility of Penn State and Ohio State won't change his approach to the season.
“It increases the odds of those that are eligible some, but it's still going to boil down to who wins the most, who plays the best. So rather than complicate it and assume that it may be an easier road, we have to grasp the idea you have to win. We have to beat the teams that are eligible, and the teams that aren't to be the team that goes.”
The Boilers are coming off a 7-6 season that included a Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl victory. To take the next step and challenge Leaders Division favorite Wisconsin, Hope said it starts with reducing turnovers.
“If you can win the turnover margin and win it significantly,” he said, “that greatly increases your odds of being championship contender.
“We have to stay healthy. That's been a nemesis the last couple of years. We have to be a much more disciplined team. That was a huge emphasis in the spring.”
Hope has boosted the talent and team speed over the last three years, and is especially solid at quarterback, the defensive line and the secondary. Defensive tackle Kawann Short is an All-America candidate. Cornerback Ricardo Allen is a returning all-Big Ten player. Quarterbacks Caleb TerBush, Robert Marve and Rob Henry are all former starters.
“I believe we have the talent,” Hope said. “I believe we have the experience. We're a very fast team on both sides of the ball. We have a very big, strong defensive front, an experienced secondary, great experience and potential at quarterback.
“So all of the pieces are there. We have to put it all together and make it happen. That's on the coaches and that's on the players.”
Indiana is looking to make a jump after last season's 1-11 record.
The defense was a disaster, allowing a Big Ten-worst 37.3 points. They gave up at least 41 points five times. But it was an offense that averaged just 18.1 points that really bothered offensive-minded coach Kevin Wilson. He's built his reputation on offensive excellence.
“We've got to score a lot more points,” he said. “Everybody talks about our D struggling. We averaged 18.1 points. That's as poor an offense as I've been around since 1999.”
On the injury front, wide receiver Duwyce Wilson appears fully recovered after tearing his ACL while catching a touchdown pass against Northwestern last season. He finished with 17 catches for 217 yards and three touchdowns.
Wilson said Wilson is at “full-go” and “has been cleared from the start of summer. I think he's had zero set-backs.”
However, veteran running back Matt Perez is still hindered with back problems. He rushed for 195 yards and three touchdowns last season.
“He's still gimpy through his back,” Wilson said. “We'll see if he can go every day. He's still not (100) percent.”
There's a potential competitive imbalance with Penn State and Ohio State being ineligible for the postseason in the Leaders Division, while the Legends Division is at full strength with Michigan State, Michigan, Nebraska, Iowa, Northwestern and Minnesota. Plus, the Nittany Lions are expected to struggle for years because of NCAA sanctions.
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald has a possible solution -- give the Legends Division winner an automatic berth in the Big Ten title game, then have a selection committee choose the other team.
“You take the other teams that are eligible, we put a committee together with the 12 athletic directors and Commissioner (Jim) Delany as the 13th vote and do it the way we're going to do the (college football) playoff,” Fitzgerald said. “I like the idea of maybe having two teams from our division in (the Big Ten title game).
“So who knows? Any way to get to Indianapolis. That's what it's all about. Every team's focus is to play for the Big Ten championship.”
The NCAA took unprecedented action by sanctioning Penn State over its role in the Jerry Sandusky scandal. That included a $60 million fine, a four-year bowl ban and scholarship reductions, even though the NCAA technically had no authority over what are legal issues involving Penn State.
Some critics have wondered if the NCAA overstepped its bounds and set an unwelcome precedent for the future with its actions. Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said he didn't care.
“I don't really care if it's a precedent. I don't care whether or not they had jurisdiction or whether or not there was an underlying NCAA violation. The only thing that matters to me is I think the NCAA did have moral authority to act. The Big Ten had moral authority to act. They had moral authority and responsibility to act.”
BTN football analyst Gerry DiNardo is convinced Penn State will need a decade to recover from its sanctions.
The biggest reason is the reduction in scholarships from 85 to 65 for four years, although the four-year bowl ban will also impact the Nittany Lions' ability to land elite recruits.
DiNardo dealt with reduced scholarship numbers after replacing Cam Cameron as the Indiana football coach in 2001.
“I was under 65 scholarships when I got to Indiana,” he said, “and it took me three years of over-signing to get to 85. So that's four years at 65 for Penn State, then three more just to get to 85. That's seven years. Then it will take another three years to get the right 85. That's why it will be 10 years before Penn State can be an elite program again and recruit at an elite level.”