Editor’s note: Our annual Crystal Ball series continues in the Big Ten West with Purdue. Coming Friday: Nebraska.

It’s fair to wonder if Purdue is going the wrong way.

When head coach Jeff Brohm burst onto the scene in 2017, it seemed like he was rescuing a program mired in mediocrity. Sure, all he did was win 7 games, but for a program that averaged only 2.1 wins in Darrell Hazell’s 4 seasons, forgive me if this felt like the start of something big in West Lafayette. Brohm was a hot coaching candidate, and Purdue made him the 8th-highest paid coach in the country (and 2nd-highest in the B1G) at $6.6 million per season.

But the Boilermakers have gone backward in the last 2 seasons, winning 6 games in 2018 and just 4 last year. Part of that is because of injuries, sure. But part of that was bad defense, a lackluster running game and a lack of depth.

While it hasn’t been smooth sailing as anticipated, I’m still optimistic about the direction of the program. It’s unlikely they are rocked by injuries as they have been in recent seasons, there are numerous promising young players who gained valuable experience last season and the team never quit on Brohm, battling much better teams such as Minnesota, Iowa and Indiana (all of which won at least 8 games) to 1-score defeats.

Brohm certainly needs more victories to justify Purdue’s investment, and he is set up well to do just that in 2020. Even though it’s an all-B1G schedule, Purdue’s slate is manageable since it avoids Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan in the crossovers, instead getting rival Indiana and Rutgers.

2019 record: 4-8 (3-6, 6th in B1G West)

Moore means more wins for Purdue

Rondale Moore’s return is a huge boost for Purdue, obviously. With Moore, who previously opted out due to the pandemic, Purdue is a team capable of upsetting Ohio State. Without him, the Boilermakers are liable to score 6 points against Illinois.

Getting the projected 1st-round pick back in the lineup opposite of David Bell is huge and will make the Boilermakers a must-watch every week. Or at the very least, a must-catch-the-highlights every week, because there will be some big plays. In fact, 4 of Purdue’s 5 highest-rated players are wideouts, as freshman Maliq Carr and sophomore Milton Wright were also 4-star recruits.

Without Moore, I’ll admit I would not be near as bullish on the Boilermakers, even though they return 17 starters. But Moore, who was the first true freshman in B1G history to be a consensus All-American, is a game-changer and capable of swinging the outcomes of games.

If Moore and Bell stay healthy, you’ll never be able to safely rule Purdue out of a game.

The 3-way QB battle

So who is going to be throwing to Moore and Bell? Well, good question. Jack Plummer, Aidan O’Connell and UCLA graduate transfer Austin Burton are locked in a 3-way race for the starting job. Plummer and O’Connell are reportedly slightly ahead due to time spent in the program.

It’s certainly not ideal that none of them have separated from the others, as that means it’s much more likely that Brohm has 3 below-average QBs than 3 studs that he just can’t pick from. It’s also not ideal that there isn’t one QB getting all the reps to build chemistry with Moore, Bell and Wright. While Plummer got a ton of experience as a freshman last year, none of it was with Moore, who got hurt the same game that Elijah Sindelar went down.

Brohm is reportedly open to playing multiple QBs, which isn’t a great sign either. As the old saying goes, if you have 2 quarterbacks, you have none. But Brohm is typically excellent with QBs, so I won’t be second-guessing his evaluation. Purdue will need a big season from whoever wins the job.

One thing that would really help the QB is establishing some sort of a run game. Purdue was last in the B1G by far in rushing offense at just 83.3 yards per game. The Boilermakers also averaged more than 6 attempts less than any other B1G team.

Defense needs help

Purdue is going to be able to outscore some teams this season, no doubt. But it still needs a better effort from its defense to be competitive. New defensive coordinator Bob Diaco has a tall task in front of him in rehabbing a unit that was 13th in the Big Ten in total defense. Part of that poor ranking is surely due to Purdue’s aggressive passing attack, but the Boilermakers still allowed over 6 yards per play, which was 13th in the B1G.

Part of the reason this is so difficult is Purdue’s best recruits are always offensive players. Of Purdue’s 10 4-star recruits, only 2 play defense: defensive end George Karlaftis and safety Marvin Grant. Karlaftis is a stud and someone Diaco can build the defense around for at least the next 2 years, and Grant is a freshman.

Until Purdue starts getting more talent on that side of the ball, is it always doomed to have this imbalance?

Game-by-game predictions

Week 1: vs. Iowa (L)

This is a tough opener against a stingy defense. Spencer Petras will be in his 1st game as Iowa’s starting QB, but without much clarity in Purdue’s own QB situation, I don’t think that counts as much of an advantage.

Week 2: at Illinois (W)

If Purdue can avoid turning the ball over, I think it has a great chance to win this game. Lovie Smith’s defense thrives off takeaways, but it allowed over 400 yards per game in 2019 — barely better than Purdue.

Week 3: at Wisconsin (L)

Wisconsin is always a tough matchup, and when it has 8 starters back on defense, Purdue is going to be hard-pressed to put up big numbers offensively. Can its defense get off the field enough against the Badgers? I don’t think so.

Week 4: vs. Northwestern (W)

In a battle of teams that had all kinds of QB issues in 2019, hopefully both have more stable situations in 2020. Purdue is more athletic than Northwestern, and I think it gets the win at home.

Week 5: at Minnesota (L)

This game is certainly more fun with Rashod Bateman and Moore opting back in to the season. Will it be competitive, though? The Boilermakers hung around last season in losing 38-31, and I could see a similar score this season. Tanner Morgan is tough, though, and probably makes 1 or 2 fewer mistakes than Plummer.

Week 6: vs. Rutgers (W)

Purdue shouldn’t have trouble with rebuilding Rutgers. If the Boilermakers do struggle, this season has gone off the rails.

Week 7: vs. Nebraska (L)

Nebraska will be grateful to not be playing a ranked team as its schedule is chock-full of them in 2020. Purdue pulled it out in Lincoln last year, and I think Scott Frost and Nebraska return the favor in West Lafayette.

Week 8: at Indiana (L)

The Hoosiers edged the Boilermakers in one of the most entertaining games of 2019, claiming the Old Oaken Bucket. I think it’ll be close again, high-scoring again and result in an Indiana win — again.

2020 projection: 3-5 (5th in B1G West)

Going 3-5 in an all-B1G season isn’t good, but add in a few of the missing winnable non-conference games and Purdue is probably where it was a few years ago. Moore is all but gone after this season, but the Boilermakers have a ton of wide receiver talent coming up behind him. Purdue can set the tone for the next few years by finishing .500 and winning a game or two that it shouldn’t.