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The Countdown

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

The Countdown

No. 77: Indiana

I think Indiana has a genuine chance at going bowling in 2010. That's right. Is this mic on?

For the first time in school history — this is no exaggeration — the Indiana football team has a better chance of participating in post-season play than does the school’s men’s basketball team, still digging itself out of the massive hole left by former coach Kelvin Sampson. Now, I don’t pretend to know much about college basketball — more than the average guy, I suppose — but that does not strike me as a good thing for a university extremely proud of its basketball heritage, and rightfully so. Nor do I intend to slight the football team: these Hoosiers, with a little help on defense, can very easily return to bowl play after a two-year absence.

Conference
Big Ten

Location
Bloomington, Ind.

Nickname
Hoosiers

Returning starters
12 (8 offense, 4 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 105

2009 record
(4-8, 1-7)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 98

2010 schedule

  • Sept. 2
    Towson
  • Sept. 18
    at Western Kentucky
  • Sept. 25
    Akron
  • Oct. 2
    Michigan
  • Oct. 9
    at Ohio St.
  • Oct. 16
    Arkansas St.
  • Oct. 23
    at Illinois
  • Oct. 30
    Northwestern
  • Nov. 6
    Iowa
  • Nov. 13
    at Wisconsin
  • Nov. 20
    Penn St. (in Landover, Md.)
  • Nov. 27
    at Purdue

Last year’s prediction

Things don’t look good. If Indiana doesn’t make hay with their non-conference slate, it will be a long, long season. I see the Hoosiers taking two of those four games (Akron and Virginia are toss-ups), but not much else: 3-9, with one upset victory in the Big Ten.

2009 recap

In a nutshell A far better team than the 2008 Hoosiers, even if the team made only a single gain in the win column. Significant improvement was made on each side of the ball: an additional three points per game on offense; nearly six less points allowed per game on defense. Still, such strides were not enough, as noted, to lift Indiana out of the Big Ten cellar: narrow losses to Michigan, Northwestern and Wisconsin — the former two on the road — sent the Hoosiers to a 1-7 conference mark. As those close setbacks indicate, Indiana is not far off from returning to bowl action. The offense is already there; the defense needs to improve while regrouping from the loss of seven starters.

High point The 3-0 start, regardless if the wins came over the football powerhouses from Eastern Kentucky, Western Michigan (though I liked W.M.U. a lot heading into last season) and Akron. Indiana’s best performance came against Akron: trailing 14-10 midway through the second quarter, the Hoosiers dropped 28 straight points while forcing four Akron turnovers.

Low point Indiana never recovered from a disheartening 36-33 loss at then-No. 23 Michigan on Sept. 26. The Hoosiers held the lead with as little as three minutes remaining, but a late Michigan score followed by an I.U. interception prevented Indiana from landing its first win in Ann Arbor since 1967.

Tidbit A few non-vital facts about last year’s Hoosiers: 1-5 in noon starts, with its lone win a 23-19 decision over Western Michigan; 0-5 when trailing entering the fourth quarter; 0-3 in November; 4-2 when rushing the ball 30 or more times; 0-4 on grass; and 0-4 when trailing in time of possession.

Tidbit (fast start edition) Indiana started last season 3-0, the second time it has done so under Lynch and the 14th time it has done so in school history. Ten of those 3-0 starts have come since the start of college football’s modern era (since 1936): in 1967, 1979, 1985-86, 1990, 1993, 1994, 2005, 2007 and 2009.

Former players in the N.F.L.

14 DE Victor Adeyanju (St. Louis), OG Kris Dielman (San Diego), CB Ray Fisher (Indianapolis), WR James Hardy (Buffalo Bills), S Herena-Daze Jones (Arizona), LB Jammie Kirlew (Denver), WR Greg Mathews (Chicago), LB Matt Mayberry (Chicago), CB Tracy Porter (New Orleans), WR Antwaan Randle El (Pittsburgh), WR Courtney Roby (New Orleans), OT Rodger Saffold (St. Louis), OG Isaac Sowells (Cincinnati), RB Chris Taylor.

Arbitrary top five list

Best non-documentary basketball movies
1. “Hoosiers” (1986).
2. “White Men Can’t Jump” (1992).
3. “He Got Game” (1998).
4. “The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh” (1979).
5. “Blue Chips” (1994).

Coaching

Bill Lynch (Butler ’77), 14-23 after three seasons with the Hoosiers. Lynch took over at Indiana after two years as Terry Hoeppner’s offensive coordinator (2005-6); he served as the interim coach for two games in 2006 while Hoeppner battled the illness that eventually took his life. Named the permanent head coach over the summer of 2007, Lynch rallied his team around the memory of its departed former coach, leading the Hoosiers to a 7-6 finish and the first bowl appearance since the Mallory-led Hoosiers of 1993. Lynch’s long and distinguished résumé includes head coaching stints at his alma mater, Butler (1985-89), Ball State (1995-2002) and DePauw (2004), as well as assistant stops at Northern Illinois and Indiana (1993-94); he coached the quarterbacks during this first stretch at I.U. His tenure at Ball State was a decidedly mixed one, as the Cardinals won 20 games his first three seasons — including an 8-4 mark in 1996 — slipped to a 1-21 mark over the 1998-99 seasons, and rebounded to win 16 games from 2000 to 2002. Though last year’s 3-9 mark was a disappointment, Lynch’s 10 wins over two seasons constitutes the best stretch of Indiana football since 1993-94; one of those 10 wins was a 2007 victory over Purdue for the Old Oaken Bucket, their first victory in the rivalry since 2001. With a contract that runs through 2012, one would think Lynch would get at least one more season to show the 2007 campaign was no fluke. He’s only 7-17 over the last two years, of course, and the Hoosiers need to indicate some improvement in order for Lynch to remove himself from the hot seat.

Players to watch

Pay attention to this offense. Leading the way is perhaps the Big Ten’s best receiver corps, a group paced by the talented trio of Tandon Doss, Demario Belcher and Terrance Turner. Doss was superb in 2009, one year after making only a slight impact in the passing game. He led I.U. in receptions (77) and receiving yards (962), tying for the team lead with five touchdowns grabs, helping him unexpectedly land first-team all-Big Ten honors. There’s no underestimating consistency, as Doss illustrated a year ago: at least five receptions in every game but one and at least 50 yards receiving in every game but two. Belcher chipped in with 61 catches for 770 yards — both second on the team — to go with another five scores. Like Doss, Belcher was steady, making at least three grabs in every game. Turner might have been overshadowed by the aforementioned pair, but he might be the most physically gifted of the bunch. Three big, athletic pass-catchers help this Indiana offense get off the ground.

Quarterback Ben Chappell is the lucky beneficiary of this talent. As a first-year starter in 2009 — though he had started in the past — the senior tossed for 2,941 yards and 17 touchdowns, completing 62.6 percent of his attempts despite taking his fair share of chances. Chappell’s confidence is occasionally his downfall, as shown by his 15 interceptions a year ago. Yet he’s a very good fit for this offense, due to his ability to get the ball to his talented receiver corps and familiarity with the system. Look for Chappell to cut down on his turnovers in 2010, potentially having the finest passing season in school history in the process.

It’s vital that sophomore Darius Willis remain healthy: he missed all or parts of five games last fall. When on the field, Willis was one of the most electric backs in the Big Ten, landing three scoring runs of at least 64 yards — including an 85-yard scamper against Michigan. He rushed for a team-best 607 yards last fall, averaging 4.9 yards per carry and scoring six times, also a team-high. Depth behind Willis is somewhat of a concern, increasing the need for the sophomore to stay on the field, not on the sidelines. Converted linebacker Trea Burgess, a converted linebacker, added 130 yards and 3 scores a year ago.

The offensive line must replace all-Big Ten selection Rodger Saffold, which will be difficult. Taking on the task of rounding this group into form is Indiana high school coaching great Mo Moriarty, who joined the I.U. staff as the offensive line coach. He’ll have a few pieces to work with, such as senior right tackle James Brewster. He was a pleasant surprise last fall, surpassing his preseason expectations, and will anchor the strong side of the line in his final season. Also returning are junior left guard Justin Pagan and sophomore center Will Matte, the latter of whom performed ably in the middle of the line despite his youth. Supplanting Safford will test this line — as one would expect — with juniors Andrew McDonald and Josh Hager battling for the top spot during the spring. Hager’s N.F.L.-ready body makes him an intriguing prospect.

This defense needs some help. It needs to lend a hand to this strong offense, which is good enough to keep I.U. in most games; the Hoosiers will need the defense to win those games, however, or be left staring at another four-win campaign. There are losses to deal with, including the departure of all-conference linebacker Matt Mayberry. Indiana plans on moving its lone returning starter at linebacker — Will Patterson has also exhausted his eligibility — to the middle, formerly Mayberry’s stomping grounds. Tyler Replogle (80 tackles, 2 sacks) will move inside from the strong side, a natural progression for this gutsy, instinctive senior. The battle to flank Replogle will continue when I.U. returns to the practice field in August. For now, junior Leon Beckum holds the edge over speedy redshirt freshman Dimitrius Carr-Watson on the strong side; sophomore Chad Sherer stands atop the depth chart on the strong side. The depth chart will certainly be altered to fit the sizable talents of JUCO transfer Jeff Thomas, who will need only time on the F.B.S. level before taking on a meaningful role with this defense. When he does, expect Replogle to return to the strong side, with Thomas standing tall in the middle.

The secondary does not look good. This group returns one starter, junior cornerback Donnell Jones, but depth is enough of a concern that I.U. moved talented receiver Mitchell Evans (33 receptions for 366 yards last fall) to safety. It’s even more troubling to see that Evans — with all due respect to his significant physical talents — holding a starting role as the Hoosiers enter the summer. In addition to the three departed starters, it hurts to lose would-be senior Jerimy Finch, the once highly-touted recruit who left the program during the spring. His decision leaves the strong safety spot to Evans; let’s see if he can translate his skill set to the defensive side of the ball. Indiana does have options at cornerback, where the competition to start opposite Jones includes returning contributor Adrian Burke — four starts last fall — and JUCO transfers Lenyatta Kiles and Andre Kates. As for free safety, look for junior Chris Adkins to earn first shot at breaking into the starting lineup. Another junior, Jarrell Drane, currently stands second on the depth chart.

Position battles to watch

There's no Pete Pihos in this group, but there is plenty of strength in numbers.

Defensive end All-conference candidate Adam Replogle (32 tackles, 4 sacks) and Larry Black (29 tackles, 7.5 for loss) return on the interior of the defensive line; little concern there. The two sophomores played surprisingly well last fall, and should develop into a very strong tandem over the next three years. The real issue is supplanting ends Jammie Kirlew and Greg Middleton, each of whom concluded their careers ranked in the top five in school history in sacks. Indiana will combat this pair’s departure with plenty of experience: each of the five players battling for snaps has spent at least three seasons with the program, with a pair of fifth-year seniors — Deonta Mack and Darius Johnson — holding the top spots heading into spring practice. This duo might maintain their starting roles come September, but keep an eye on a handful of returning contributors capable of playing sizable roles. The first is 24-year old sophomore Kevin Bush, who is eligible for on-field action after spending the last four years in the Army. Juniors Fred Jones and Eric Thomas will also figure heavily into the mix. Jones hopes to remain fully healthy after missing the final nine games of last season due to a foot injury. One thing these ends do not lack is size: none of the top five clock in at less than 250 pounds, and Mack — a former tackle — has the size to stand up against any offensive tackle in the run game. Perhaps this group lacks the top-end athleticism of Kirlew and Middleton; there is strength in numbers, however, and I don’t expect too much of a drop off in production in 2010. It will be a group effort.

Game(s) to watch

The non-conference slate. Indiana needs to go 4-0 outside of Big Ten play, obviously, if it plans to reach bowl eligibility. The conference schedule is difficult — as always — but the Hoosiers have winnable road dates with Illinois and Purdue. The season finale with Purdue, a game played for the Old Oaken Bucket, means something regardless of either team’s record.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell This offense bears watching. Between Chappell, Willis and the outstanding receiver corps, Indiana will not struggle to score points, particularly against the weaker teams on its schedule. It is because of the offense — and solely because of the offense — that I have Indiana ranked in this spot. Well, this schedule helps. Barring injuries, I.U. will land a 4-0 mark outside of Big Ten play; the conference schedule is not easy — allowing a home game against Penn State to be played at FedEx field hurts — but the Hoosiers are talented enough to win a pair of games against Big Ten opposition. Of course, that would give Indiana six wins, most likely enough to land a bowl berth. I think this team is capable of doing so. If Indiana does not, it will be as a result of a questionable defense: gone are the talented rush ends of a year ago, two strong linebackers and three multiple-year contributors in the secondary. As of today, it’s a sizable question mark. The defense is also the only factor preventing from boldly predicting Indiana to land at least six wins in 2010. I’m hesitant to do so, however, even if I’m higher on this team than most. It still wouldn’t surprise me to see I.U. squeak into the post-season with six wins.

Dream season Indiana returns to bowl play, landing a perfect mark in non-conference play and a surprising 4-4 mark against Big Ten opposition.

Nightmare season This offense is good, but not good enough to carry an ineffective defense: 3-9, 0-8 in conference play.

In case you were wondering

Where do Indiana fans congregate? A few good options, though you’re always bound to find more basketball chatter than football talk. If you’re intrigued, try out Hoosier Nation and Inside Indiana for recruiting news. Additional solid coverage can be found at The Hoosier Scoop, a blog from The Herald Times, and The Crimson Quarry.

Up Next

Who is No. 76? Our next university plays its home games at the highest-altitude stadium in the F.B.S.

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Comments

  1. N. Kawanakakoa says:

    I’m getting antsy. Where’s my team going to be ranked?

  2. Andy G says:

    Wyoming is next.

  3. Noefli says:

    Wyoming

  4. Colin says:

    Although the highest stadium may be a bit south of Laramie, in Boulder.

    Paul: You know, I thought the same thing. But Folsom Field comes in at 5,360 feet above sea level, slightly more than a mile, while Wyoming’s War Memorial Stadium clock in at 7,215 feet above sea level.

  5. Colin says:

    I was making a bad joke about how Boulder has a reputation for engaging in certain recreational activities.

    Paul: Ah, I get it. Went right over my head. I’m cool, I swear.

  6. Mike says:

    IU did have some close losses in Big Ten play – Wis. Michigan, Northwestern and a loss to Iowa. In that game, Indiana was leading by 14 in the third quarter and just two yards away from the Hawkeyes’ end zone. The drive resulted in no points for IU – instead a defensive touchdown for Iowa (85 yard int. return). Iowa won the game going away, but it was a tough win for them.

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