The Surprising Rise of Indiana Football

Many people know that 2019 marks the 150th anniversary of college football. What would an anniversary like that be without some crazy story lines? Central Florida going for its third straight undefeated regular season, Clemson trying to win its third National Championship in four years, Oregon trying to take control of a crowded PAC-12, and Michigan looking to win its first Big Ten Championship since 2004. But a story line that no one had anticipated was that of the 7-2 Indiana Hoosiers breaking into the Top 25. For the first time since 1994, the Hoosier football team is one of the best 25 teams in the country, at least according to the Associated Press. Why the sudden rebound? Not really a rebound, Indiana hasn't exactly been a football powerhouse in the course of their existence (479-673-45 and two conference titles don't exactly scream "dynasty!"). In a conference where teams like Northwestern, Minnesota (somehow being undefeated only earned them a #17 ranking until this last week, but I digress), and Illinois are overshadowed, Indiana has a long way to go to prove national relevance. But cracking the Top 25 for the first time in 25 years is certainly a start.

What changed? Kevin Wilson, who is currently running the insanely dominant Ohio State offense couldn't get it done, leading the Hoosiers to a 18-38 record between 2011-2016. Gerry DiNardo didn’t get the Hoosiers on the right track, and he’s now an expert at the Big Ten Network. That’s a man who knows football, but he could only muster a paltry 8-27 record between 2002-2004. In fact, there have only been four coaches in Indiana Football history who have had a winning tenure as the Head Coach. No, not even Lee Corso managed to do so. Well, do you care to explain how the Hoosiers have a 7-2 record and a Top 25 Ranking? Look no further than Coach Tom Allen, who since taking over in 2016 has compiled a 17-17 record. Why is this significant? That's not a good record! No, it's not a good record, in fact it's a very mediocre record. But it’s the most wins a coach has had in their first three seasons in the post-WWII era for ole IU. Y’all, that's a LONG time. What changed? Tom and his defensive mind. He wasn’t the flashy hire but he was a consistent one. Consistency is all Indiana wants and needs. A majority of his career has been that of a Defensive Coordinator, and when he was hired on at Indiana in 2016 for that role, he took a defense that ranked 109th in the FBS in points scored against to 58th. They finished the season 6-7, but the defensive turnaround was evident.

While the 2017 and 2018 seasons were not the best performances from the Hoosiers, there was definitive proof that they were making adjustments to be competitive, something Indiana hasn’t been in a very long time. Both seasons ended with 5-7 records, but they were playing tough opponents to their limits. While 2017 saw losing efforts to the likes of Ohio State and Penn State in blowout fashion, in 2018 we saw the Hoosiers nearly upset Penn State, playing smart defense and forcing critical turnovers. You'll notice the scoreboard showed 33-28 and this game, despite losing, could very well have turned the tide for Indiana, as they played close against both Michigan and Michigan State, albeit in losing efforts. The 2019 season brought lots of hope for Indiana. Kicking off the schedule with Ball State and Eastern Illinois, the Hoosiers won games that they were expected to win. Enter Big Ten juggernaut Ohio State. Many would say that the 51-10 loss would demoralize a team. “You have something like this happen and not allowing it to linger and one loss affecting how you perform the next week,” Allen said. “It just cannot happen. So that’s where your leaders have to rise up and these guys have been here and have experience. And the coaching staff and what we, the message that we send to our guys — and we have to live that out ourselves, I have to flush it as well.” (The Hoosier Network)

For Indiana, the goal was simple: Don’t let Ohio State beat them twice. Indiana followed that loss with a blowout of UConn, 38-3, and then dropping a close contest to Michigan State. Since that MSU game, the Hoosiers have rattled off four consecutive wins, including dominant performances over Rutgers, and 2018 Big Ten runner-up Northwestern.

The Hoosiers are now in uncharted territory, sitting on their first winning season since 2007. And before that, 1994. How high can Indiana fly? Their schedule doesn't exactly get easier either, with back-to-back games at Penn State and at home against Michigan before their season finale at West Lafayette for the annual Old Oaken Bucket game against Purdue. While Indiana has played admirably, I just don’t see them beating either Penn State or Michigan. Purdue is another story. Rivalry games, you have to throw out the records. It's a fool's errand to guess how the season will finish, because college football is anything but predictable, but Indiana has given themselves a lot to build on for the future. I won’t say they are the next power in the Big Ten (I'm eyeballing P.J. Fleck and Minnesota for that honor), but they definitely have the right coach at the helm, and he’s breeding a culture of “do better” in these players. Look for Indiana to continue to crawl out of the cellar of the Big Ten, and occasionally make the conference race a little more interesting than it already is.

Welcome to the Top 25, Indiana. You’ve done it. Now go, IU! FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT!

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