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A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

Need to Know

Freshmen Rule Wilson’s Building Project

You wouldn’t think things could get any worse, but hey, there you go. Last fall, in Bill Lynch’s final season, Indiana won five games, lost seven, won a single game in Big Ten play and lost four games by 17 or more points. This fall, in Kevin Wilson’s first season — nine games old — the Hoosiers have won just a single game, lost eight, failed to beat one F.B.S. foe and lost four straight games to end October by 21 or more points. No, you wouldn’t think things could get any worse, but you should have known worse days were coming: Wilson is destroying this foundation, such as it is, and doing his best to rebuild Indiana football brick by brick, following in the footsteps of a long line of coaches who have tried, and often failed, to do the same in Bloomington.

And there have been signs of competitiveness. Or there were signs, rather. The Hoosiers were the stronger team offensively in the season opener against Ball State, but the Cardinals did a great job controlling the clock, keeping the I.U. offense off the field.

A week later, Indiana offset a 23-3 third quarter deficit against Virginia with 28 unanswered points, giving it a 31-23 lead with two minutes left before a horrific collapse gave the Cavaliers a 34-31 win. The Hoosiers hung tight with Penn State in the Big Ten opener before losing, 16-10.

The last four weeks have been ugly. They’ve been ugly on the field, where Indiana has lost by a combined score of 204-89 to Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa and Northwestern. The defense has been inept, to put it lightly, and while the offense showed a pulse over the last two weeks the group as a whole has been far too prone to penalties and third down failures.

The news has been ugly off the field. On July 27, Indiana pulled one of the great recruiting coups in recent memory when Gunner Kiel, the nation’s top quarterback prospect, chose Wilson and the Hoosiers over offers from some of the nation’s premier programs. In selecting I.U., Kiel cited the opportunity to work under Wilson and a familiarity with the program; Kiel’s older brother, Dusty, is a sophomore quarterback for the Hoosiers.

On Oct. 21, six days after Indiana lost by 52 points to Wisconsin and one day before it would lose by 21 points at Iowa, Kiel opted to renege on his verbal commitment and reopen his recruitment. There’s a reason they’re called verbal commitments; regardless, his decision — and it seems as if Indiana has become a long shot for Kiel’s services — was a punch in the stomach for the program.

It’s simply been an inauspicious debut for Wilson, the former Oklahoma offensive coordinator, who has led Indiana into a familiar spot: with bowl hopes gone, the Hoosiers are playing out the string. But for Wilson, playing out the string — and he’d never, ever use that phrase — comes with a purpose.

Wilson started 12 freshmen in Saturday’s loss to Northwestern, five on offense and seven on defense. Eight were true freshmen, four on each side of the ball. No F.B.S. program has started as many total freshmen or true freshmen, and no other program has started as many freshmen on the defensive side of the ball. This is a youth movement writ large.

In revamping his depth chart, Wilson is sending a clear message: today’s not our day. But it goes deeper than that, of course. In sending the youngsters to the wolves, Wilson is making plans for the future, which may — fingers crossed — involve Indiana making bowl trips with relative consistency.

Just take a look at the two-deep for this Saturday’s game against Ohio State. Wilson is due to start a true freshman at left guard, wide receiver, quarterback, defensive, safety and cornerback. As of today, a redshirt freshman will start at right guard, defensive end, strong side linebacker and safety.

It’s a simple page out of the coaching handbook: when all else fails as a rookie coach, go young. And trust your guys, not your predecessor’s guys — and Wilson is following this path to the letter, dismissing leading receiver Damario Belcher, a senior, for an unspecified violation of team rules just as the freshmen and sophomore receivers began making their mark.

Whether Wilson’s freshmen lift Indiana out of the doldrums won’t be decided for at least another year, if not more. And this year — what’s left of it, anyway — will only find the Hoosiers playing an uglier brand of football. But all moribund programs need to start somewhere: for Wilson and Indiana, the future starts with the youngsters. And yes, it may even get worse before it gets better.

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  1. Rookierookie says:

    I wasn’t sure what was achieved by firing Bill Lynch and hiring Kevin Wilson, and I’m still not sure.

    But then, it could have been worse. You could have been Maryland.

  2. 4.0 Point Stance says:

    On one hand, you feel for the seniors. Wilson is basically nailing them to the bench and torpedoeing their final year on purpose so he can get ready for next year. And he’s sending a message that guys who were recruited and coached by the last guy aren’t “really” members of the team, which is kinda like a stepdad who lavishes attention on his own kids while ignoring his stepkids. On the other hand, the seniors had their chance and it’s not like they proved themselves to be any great shakes in the first place.

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