2020 was a weird year. I don’t think I need to quote any sources or take any polls to say that. Quarantine, months away from seeing loved ones, wondering if that sniffle is just a cold or something far worse. We all had our lives altered and were forced to view things just a little differently due to an illness. We all learned what was important to other people and who believed in what. But you know what we also learned? While sports aren’t “essential”, man did most of us miss them when they were gone.
Naturally, sports were affected as much as everything else in the world and one could argue college sports were affected the most. These young men were away from their family and friends for months and while they did so of their own volition, it doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be insanely difficult for kids. We forget that sometimes, they’re just kids. They have good days and bad days like us. They get stressed about tests, friends, family, girls, and any number of other things just like us. Mix in added steps to play due to Covid restrictions and you can imagine how hard it would be to stay grounded day in and day out.
In step the 2020 Indiana Hoosiers. Coming off an 8-win season, one of only 7 such seasons in IU football history, the Hoosiers needed to prove that it could shake off a heartbreaking loss in the Gator Bowl to Tennessee. Could they rise above what IU has always been and slay their demons in a weird, Covid shortened season? The answer was a resounding, “YES!”. It started in the first game of the year against the highly ranked Penn State Nittany Lions. Only IU fans thought that Penn State could walk out of that game with a loss. In overtime, Coach Tom Allen and Quarterback Michael Penix went for the win and got it in dramatic fashion. Next? A Viral video of the Hoosier locker room with players yelling “WE LOVE YOU, COACH!!!”.
The rest of the season followed suit for the most part, with IU finishing the regular season 6-1 with wins over Penn State, Michigan, and Wisconsin. It was a phenomenal season by IU standards that sent the Hoosiers to their second consecutive bowl game and fourth such game in 6 seasons. For Hoosier faithful, the season gave them the feeling like they had finally graduated and joined the big boys of the Big Ten. The Hoosiers clearly have their coach, who has parlayed the last two seasons into success on the recruiting trail and has the love of his players. They have their Quarterback, despite suffering a third consecutive season ending injury, costing him the ability to play in the bowl game that was eventually lost Ole Miss. And they have their defense, complete with arguably the best corner in the Big Ten and several other guys that are poised to play on Sundays. So obviously, a 6-1 team that is returning the vast majority of its team should expect nothing less than a similar season, right? Well, maybe pump the brakes just a bit.
The 2020 squad proved that love and togetherness could be the secret sauce that helped level the playing field and raise them to heights that the program hadn’t reached in over 30 years. But can love and togetherness vault them into the upper echelon of the Big Ten in a more normal season?
Historically speaking, its difficult to find a quality comparison for what the Hoosiers are going through currently. Nothing more than a bottom dweller that would occasionally get a little frisky for a season, and then return to the cellar. The nearest comparison I can find is Wisconsin prior to Barry Alvarez. In the four seasons prior to Alvarez’s arrival, the Badgers won a total of 9 games. In his first season in Madison? 1 win. 5 wins in each of the next two seasons lead into a 10-win season and a Rose Bowl victory in 1993, his fourth season as the Badgers coach. I’m sure there were tons of Wisconsin fans going into the ’94 season that felt their Badgers should compete for another Big Ten title and potentially something more. But that wasn’t the case. Wisconsin wasn’t done building the entire foundation at that point but they had turned a corner. In the following four seasons the Badgers won 7, 4, 8, and 8 games respectively. They were a good, balanced team that won the games they should, for the most part.
Now, it’s hard to say if the 2020 Hoosiers are the equivalent of that first Wisconsin Rose Bowl team or not, but for arguments sake, let’s say it is. This offseason I’ve seen several fans acting as if a trip to the Rose Bowl is the expectation, and at the very least, a 10-win season with a trip to a high-quality bowl game as the proverbial cherry on top. Is that possible? Of course. It’s fair to say that this team has NFL caliber players and a non-zero percent chance at putting together a 10-2 or 11-1 season. You could argue that when Michael Penix reached across that goal line to beat Penn State, Indiana exorcized the demons that had haunted it for years against the heavy weights of the Big Ten. You could argue that the Hoosiers are due for a win over Ohio State and that since they beat Penn State and Michigan last year, they clearly can again this year. All of that is completely fair, regardless of how sound the logic is and how reasonable basing an argument on “being due” is. But, is that likely? I personally don’t believe it is, and I also don’t believe it’s fair to expect anything close to that.
Indiana starts its season on the road at Iowa. People that watch a lot of football know how difficult games at Iowa can be. They have a long history of sucking the life out of good, fun football teams thanks to their style of play, quality coaching, and a rather unique visitor locker room situation. Can the Hoosiers win the game? Of course. But acting as if it wouldn’t be a great win is foolish and it is in no way a gimme. Game two should almost certainly be a win in front of a home crowd for the first time in over a year against Idaho. Simply put, this isn’t dynasty mode on NCAA 14, Idaho shouldn’t compete with the Hoosiers. In the third game of the season, the Hoosiers welcome a Cincinnati Bearcats team that nearly beat Georgia in a NY6 bowl game and return several starters, including their QB. It’s going to be arguably the biggest non-conference football game played in Bloomington this century and IU can definitely come out on the wrong side of that matchup. And this doesn’t include the games at Penn State, home vs Ohio State, and at Michigan. It doesn’t matter who you are, that is a difficult schedule if you’re not the Alabama’s and Clemson’s of the world. It’s completely realistic that the Hoosiers enter their final game of the season with something like 5 or 6 wins and needing a strong game against Purdue in the Bucket game to guarantee a third consecutive bowl game.
I feel it’s a good time to say I don’t expect this Hoosier team to have to scratch and claw to get to six wins. I also don’t expect them to be playing in Pasadena in January. This team will likely be somewhere in between and continue building on the foundation they’ve laid over the last two seasons. Michael Penix is arguably a top 5 quarterback in college football, Tom Allen knows how to coach a high-quality defense, and the players genuinely care for their coach and want to win, not only for themselves, but for him. That’s not something you can quantify, but it’s going to be worth a win in a close game somewhere along the line. I’m not sure what this Hoosier team can be but I think it’s fair to say that given the past two years and the magic that Tom Allen seems to have on his side now, we all need to recalibrate our thinking of the Hoosier football program moving forward.