Purdue coach Darrell Hazell understands the stakes.
He’s changed both coordinators, simplified the offense to make it better suited for quarterback David Blough and has seen the athletic department offer creative ticket packages to attract bigger crowds to Ross-Ade Stadium. The missing element, of course, is winning games — something Hazell expects to change quickly in 2016.
"It’s important for this team to get off to a good start," he said Sunday. "If we do, watch out. There is something to be said about finding ways to win."
Victory celebrations have been sparse during Hazell’s three-year tenure.
His .167 winning percentage is the worst of any Boilermakers football coach who lasted more than one season. Two of his six wins were against Indiana State, an FCS school. He is 3-29 against the FBS, 2-22 against the Big Ten and, after a third straight loss to archrival Indiana, some fans started campaigning for Hazell’s ouster.
Last season, the Boilermakers (2-10, 1-7 Big Ten) finished last in their division — the third straight time — and the constant struggle on the field has created a steady decline in attendance, too.
Hazell knows that’s a legacy that must change, especially now that Mike Bobinski has been hired as Purdue’s next athletic director.
So after overhauling his staff last winter, Hazell expects his players to take advantage of a potentially friendly September schedule — three winnable home games — to get the program righted.
"It’s hugely important for us to be 3-0 going into our (Oct. 1) Big Ten opener at Maryland, and in the process, learn how to win games and finish games," running back Markell Jones said.
Here are some other things to watch this season:
QUARTERBACK CONTINUITY: Blough returns as the incumbent quarterback after starting the final eight games last season. Quarterback continuity has not been a trademark of Hazell’s teams in West Lafayette, Indiana. Each season, Hazell has plugged the incumbent starter into the lineup only to make a midseason change, turning the Cradle of Quarterbacks into the Carousel of Quarterbacks. Hazell likely can’t afford to make another midseason switch.
KEEPING UP WITH JONES: Jones burst onto the scene as a freshman last season and was expected to split carries with rising junior D.J. Knox this fall, giving the Boilermakers a strong one-two punch. Those plans changed when Knox tore the ACL in his left knee during the Boilermakers’ spring game. With Knox out for the entire season, Jones should thrive in his role as the feature back.
ON THE DEFENSIVE: Maybe Purdue didn’t have the Big Ten’s worst defense last season, but it wasn’t great. New coordinator Ross Els has brought in a new philosophy in hopes of fixing a unit that allowed 36.5 points, 214.9 yards rushing and 458.3 total yards per game. It won’t be easy, and it may not be fully ready in time for that big September run.
KEY GAMES: Hazell is correct: A fast start is important before Big Ten play begins. With that in mind, these games are key for the Boilermakers’ confidence: Sept. 3, Eastern Kentucky; Sept. 10, Cincinnati; Sept. 24, Nevada. And of course, the big one every year for Purdue is Indiana, which this year is on Nov. 26.
SEASON OPENER: As Hazell emphasizes the need to start fast and build confidence, Eastern Kentucky could throw a wrench into that plan. Senior quarterback Bennie Coney led the Colonels to a playoff appearance and five games with at least 41 points last season. And now he must fend off Maty Mauk, a transfer from Missouri. Either way, it will be a prime test for Els’ new defense.
PREDICTION: The tough times continue for Purdue: 3-9.