This is part of series previewing the 2022 outlook for Big Ten teams. Previously: Ohio StateMichigan, Michigan State, Penn State, Wisconsin, Iowa

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Nine-win seasons are rare in West Lafayette.

It’d been since 2003 that the Boilermakers last won 9. They repeated it this season, surprising most prognosticators by winning 5 of their last 6 games, including a dramatic 48-45 overtime victory against Tennessee in the Music City Bowl, to reach the threshold.

Now, the challenge for Jeff Brohm and company is to see the momentum carry into a 2022 season that will be full of expectation. Could Purdue contend for a Big Ten West championship?

Although the personnel loses are significant — All-Americans David Bell and George Karlaftis are off to the NFL after sitting out the bowl game, and co-defensive coordinator and play-caller Brad Lambert is at Wake Forest — the Boilermakers feel they can build around budding star quarterback Aidan O’Connell, inexperienced but promising skill players and a solid nucleus of defenders.

What worked in 2021

Although Purdue got off to an inconsistent start — it was 3-2 headed to its Week 6 bye — there were early signs that the Boilermakers could take a step forward this season, perhaps get back to 6 wins and into the postseason.

The defense was markedly improved, thanks to a completely rebuilt coaching staff that emphasized the Boilermakers’ strength, mainly Karlaftis and a solid front 7. It helped Purdue significantly in the first half of the season, while the offense, uncharacteristic of Brohm-led groups, struggled to find its footing. But once Purdue flipped quarterbacks, switching from Jack Plummer to O’Connell, the offense blossomed.

Purdue scored upsets over top-5 opponents Iowa and Michigan State, bringing significant positive exposure to the program and jump-starting the Boilermakers’ run to the postseason.

O’Connell was a magician in the second half of the season, operating Purdue’s offense at an incredibly high efficiency, perhaps the highest it’s been in the Brohm era. The quarterback, who announced after the regular season that he’d return for his super sixth year, finished the season with 3,711 yards passing with a 71.8 completion percentage, and 28 touchdowns vs. 11 interceptions. Despite personnel loses in the bowl game, being without 5 of his top 7 receivers, O’Connell passed for 5 touchdowns and 534 yards.

O’Connell spurred the comeback victory over the Volunteers in Nashville, but it was place-kicker Mitchell Fineran who ended it. His 39-yard field goal was the game-winner in overtime and capped an excellent first (of 2) seasons at Purdue, after transferring from Samford. He hit 24 of his 29 field goal attempts.

Before the season, Brohm sought better chemistry, looking for a defensive coaching staff that would work collaboratively, and he found a good mix with newcomers Lambert, Mark Hagen, Ron English and James Adams, the first 3 of whom were named co-coordinators. But now, Brohm is forced to replace Lambert after only a year, following his departure to Wake; and Adams might end up there, too.

What didn’t work in 2021

Somewhat unbelievably, the Boilermakers had a 5-game stretch midseason in which they scored 13 points — and only 13 points — in 4 of them.

In hindsight, it’s led to some what-ifs now. What if Purdue would have been able to beat Minnesota in O’Connell’s first start? Could Purdue have won the West Division? Maybe the Boilermakers could have defeated the Gophers had Brohm named O’Connell the starter earlier, maybe at the start of the season. Maybe a Notre Dame win would have been a possibility.

Other than those unanswerable questions, Brohm frequently pushed the right buttons with this Boilermaker team, something he needed to do following back-to-back sub-.500 seasons that left many Purdue fans longing for more.

QB situation

Purdue’s in great shape at QB, after O’Connell announced he’d use his Covid season to return to Purdue for a 6th year.

The strong-armed signal-caller is a second-team All-Big Ten member and likely the best in the Big Ten West. Until his interceptions vs. Tennessee, which arguably came as a result of him trying to do too much without his usual complement of weapons, O’Connell had gone 229 attempts without a pick. Brohm can build his offense around O’Connell, who gives the Boilermakers instant credibility in the crowded Big Ten West.

And O’Connell’s return gives the Boilermakers a little more time to develop their underclassman quarterbacks, including 4-stars in sophomore-to-be Michael Alaimo and incoming freshman Brady Allen. Both are highly regarded QBs who can learn as backups before battling it out for the starting gig in 2023. Veteran Austin Burton has also announced he’ll return for ’22, giving Purdue added experience in the QB room.

Key losses

As expected, Karlaftis and Bell are headed to the NFL Draft, departing Purdue a year early. But the duo had done enough for the Boilermakers, helping them back to the postseason and laying the foundation for years to come.

Purdue will also see other key personnel departures, including running back Zander Horvath, hybrid end DeMarcus Mitchell and linebacker Jaylin Alexander, each of whom could have decided on another season at Purdue but instead chose to head toward a shot at the NFL. Wide receiver Jackson Anthrop, who embodied the Boilermaker spirit during his tenure, is also gone after spending a half dozen years in a Purdue uniform.

Purdue’s lost several others to the transfer portal, although none of significant impact to the anticipated 2-deep.

But there’s 1 other to keep an eye on: Wide receiver Milton Wright. The rising senior was academically ineligible for the Music City Bowl. Whether the big, physical, experienced wideout can get his affairs in order and return in 2022 is yet to be seen.

Key returnees

O’Connell will have some key skill guys returning, including his top 2 tight ends in Payne Durham and Garrett Miller, plus running back King Doerue and receiver Broc Thompson, who had a breakout Music City Bowl despite playing on knees that need offseason surgery. Also, 3 starting offensive linemen are set to be back, although Purdue most likely will need to replace 2-year starter Greg Long at left tackle.

The Boilermakers also have good young wide receivers, although which ones of those rise to the top remains to be seen.

On defense, Purdue has a number of key players returning: Defensive tackles Lawrence Johnson and Branson Deen, linebacker Jalen Graham, safeties Cam Allen and Marvin Grant and cornerbacks Jabari Brown and Cory Trice (who missed most of the season), to name several.

Key recruits

As of early January, Purdue had pulled in about 8 veterans from the transfer portal, as it looks to boost its depth chart before the spring.

The biggest gets might be the ones who are the most familiar, as former Indiana cornerback Reese Taylor and former Iowa wide receiver Tyrone Tracy, both of whom starred at their Indianapolis area high schools, pledged to become Boilermakers. They are likely to play big roles for Purdue next season, potentially with Tracy as a starter — Purdue is in need of a big-play receiver — and Taylor as a DB, possibly as the nickel back.

Unlike this season, when Purdue didn’t play any true freshmen on offense or defense, Purdue probably will in 2022. The most likely to get a shot from Day 1 is defensive end Joe Strickland, a 4-star recruit, per 247Sports, out of Indy. He has ability similar to Karlaftis, although probably needs to develop the same kind of motor, as would be the case for many incoming freshmen.

Purdue still needs help at running back and on the offensive and defensive lines, and likely will continue to search the transfer portal to find players there who can make an impact right away.