Purdue hasn’t often had seasons like this.

A quick glance through the Boilermaker annals shows that it’s been nearly a quarter of a century since the program combined for at least 17 victories in back-to-back seasons, when Joe Tiller did so — shockingly — during his 1st 2 years on Purdue’s sideline. But the Boilermakers stand on the precipice once again, needing 1 more victory to get to 17 total after winning 9 last season. Purdue will get the 1st opportunity to do that against rival Indiana on Saturday in Bloomington as the schools battle for the Old Oaken Bucket.

But 17 might be the least important of the things the Boilermakers are playing for, with them also having a chance at a share of a Big Ten West Division title and an outside shot at playing for the league championship in Indianapolis. They’ll need Nebraska to upset Iowa in Iowa City on Friday afternoon, in combination with a win against the Hoosiers, to make that happen. Heck, if that happens, maybe Purdue has a chance at only its 2nd 10-win season ever, although it would be at least a 2-touchdown underdog to Ohio State or Michigan in the title game, then possibly an underdog in the bowl, as well.

Purdue’s path to the Bucket game hasn’t been a straight line. The Boilermakers started the season 1-2 after missing out on opportunities vs. Penn State and Syracuse, with late missteps allowing the opponents to take an edge, then hang on. Purdue recovered to win 4 straight, including back-to-back victories as underdogs vs. Minnesota and Maryland. But with control over the West in hand, the Boilermakers couldn’t keep up the momentum, losing at Wisconsin — for seemingly the 100th time in a row — and falling at home, as the favorite, to Iowa. The latter left Purdue fans feeling despondent, thinking the opportunity to play in Lucas Oil in Indy had been lost. Perhaps it had, but Purdue responded the next week, getting its 3rd victory of the season as a road underdog, upsetting Illinois. Under Jeff Brohm the last 6 years, Purdue’s been great when pushed against a wall. A ho-hum victory against Northwestern Saturday, in chilly Ross-Ade Stadium, brings the Boilermakers to the present.

Purdue holds an overwhelming edge in the Bucket series, started back in 1925, winning 61 of the 96 games (with 32 losses and 3 ties), but it’s been more even recently. The Boilermakers won 13 of 16 from 1997-2012. But since ’13, the Hoosiers are 5-3, including a 4-game winning streak from 2013-2016. That said, Purdue has won 3 of the last 4, and another victory Saturday would be a big step in re-establishing itself as the state’s top Big Ten team.

For programs that have battled in recruiting, and that’s especially been the case lately, as both Brohm and Tom Allen have put an emphasis on Indianapolis-area prospects during their tenures (and each have had big recruiting gets), the series trends do matter.

Even if the Boilermakers don’t get help from the Cornhuskers this weekend, a share of a Big Ten West title would be an appreciated result, especially considering the divisions are likely to go away following next season, as USC and (presumably) UCLA join the conference in ’24.

But Saturday’s game is unlikely to be an easy one. Purdue hasn’t made much of anything easy this season, with 7 of the 11 outcomes being by only a possession. The Boilermakers are a 10-point favorite, but Indiana seems rejuvenated after last week’s stunning 39-31 comeback overtime victory at Michigan State. The Hoosiers can’t get to 6 wins, but a victory would be Win No. 5, a step back in the right direction for Allen and Co. after winning only 2 games last season.

So Purdue faces a challenge, and it does so with a ton at stake.