Summer is a hard time for the college sports fan. The games are still months away and there grows a further appreciation for the phrase "no news is good news" as it seems the only things that are newsworthy when the weather is hot are arrests or NCAA scandals. This is doubly true for bloggers, woe are we, who have to find ways to entertain and interest the reader with little actual info to build on.
This year, thanks to the coordinated efforts of the Maize n Brew staff, we are proud to present the Maize n Brew Weekly Big Ten Preview. Each week* we will focus on a different Big Ten team providing previews, recruiting breakdowns, schedule analysis, and other interesting content. It is our hope that not only can we educate Michigan fans on what is going on around the conference, but we can give Big Ten fans everywhere something to read and talk about. After all, we are in this summer thing together. Might as well try to make the best of it.
Each weekday for the next 11 weeks we will post another installment in this conference wide series. For those of you complaining that "this is a Michigan blog, fergodsakes. I want Michigan news!" don't worry, we will still do our due diligence on Michigan sports, and we even have some interesting plans for a pair of ongoing Michigan-centric series as well. More info on that coming soon.
For now, enjoy week one of the Maize n Brew Big Ten Preview. For more information on Indiana athletics you can always visit The Crimson Quarry, SBN's outstanding Indiana blog. More from them later in the week, but for now let's go live to Bloomington, IN for our first stop on the trip.
*(A special thanks to Off Tackle Empire, from whom I shamelessly stole this idea. I can only hope our version turns out half as informative and witty as theirs.)
When historians look back on 2011 they will inevitably see it as a banner year for the Indiana Hoosiers. After a long period of irrelevance, poor recruiting, mounting losses, and being written off by just about everyone as something of a hopeless case going forward, the Hoosiers put together the kind of season that can lead to the return to power that the Indiana faithful have been expecting all these many years. The young coach, a rising star in the profession, put together a solid squad and a great season followed with stunning upsets, dramatic conference wins, and a solid postseason run.
Unfortunately for Indiana, we are here to talk about football. While the exploits of the basketball team are probably all anyone in the Hoosier state cares about anymore --- football being small potatoes unless it is topped by a golden dome --- there is the ever present reality that as competitive as the Big Ten has been in basketball in recent years, it is at its heart a football conference, and Indiana seems to be the only school that still hasn't gotten the memo. Hoosier football exists in a perpetually depleted state. There have been no impressive runs. No surprise seasons or conference title pushes. No plucky teams that defied the odds. Winning, when it happens, is sporadic and followed hot on the heels by disappointment.
Since 1967 --- the year of Indiana's last Big Ten championship --- the Hoosiers have been to only eight bowls (losing five of them) and had eight coaches (only two have conference winning percentages greater than .300), and the most momentum the program has been able to muster since the Bill Mallory era was halted by coach Terry Hoeppner's death from brain cancer in 2006. It has quite literally rained shit on Bloomington, Indiana every fall since most of the players on Indiana's current roster were still in diapers.
Were it not for the Bill Mallory years stretching from mid 80's to 90's, Indiana's program would have a strong claim against Duke for the most pathetic major conference FBS football program of the modern era. Mallory got Indiana to six bowl games in 13 seasons, helped the Hoosiers win eight games multiple times, and he still remains Indiana's winningest coach of all time with 69 victories, a winning percentage of just .473, and a winless season to his name (0-11 in his first season as head coach). This is the standard bearer for Indiana football.
Purdue, Illinois, and Minnesota have all made valiant efforts competing for conference titles in the past decade (falling short, however), Northwestern is trending upwards and has been for some time, and both Michigan State and Iowa have established themselves as solid upper-tier football programs. That leaves Indiana somewhere under the heap, just gasping for air.
Coach Kevin Wilson, in his second year running the show, is tasked with the latest rebuilding project in Bloomington, and if the results of his first year are any indication, things are a long way from getting markedly better any time soon.
Wilson, by all indications, is well suited to bring Indiana back. He cut his teeth in the Midwest after working his way up the coaching ranks. The first major coaching job came with Miami (OH) under coach Randy Walker. After working up from offensive line coach to offensive coordinator, Wilson followed Walker to Northwestern where he coordinated the dangerous Wildcat offense that Michigan fans remember very well from one particular upset. After that Wilson was the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma (splitting duties his first four years) until he got the job at Indiana late in 2010.
Last year Indiana won just one game, its third of the season and only game against an FCS opponent. There were nail biters (a seven-point loss to Ball State, a three-point loss to Virginia, a six-point loss to Penn State) and blow outs (Indiana was outscored by 52 points against both Wisconsin and Michigan State). Indiana was thoroughly mediocre on offense (83rd in ypg, 101 in ppg) and downright awful on defense (109th in yards allowed, 114th in points allowed). Indiana was so bad that nationally the Hoosiers ranked in the bottom third in 14 of the 17 major statistical categories (80th or below).
The prospects for year two aren't much better as Indiana loses two upperclassmen quarterbacks, Dusty Kiel and Edward Wright-Baker, and the most productive defensive player, linebacker Jeff Thomas. There are a few young faces that could ease the transition. True sophomore quarterback Tre Roberson returns after taking over the starting job midway through his freshman campaign, and he is a dangerous dual threat the likes of which Indiana hasn't seen in a few years (no Antwaan Randle-El comparisons just yet. You gotta earn those, kid). Joining him will be a pair of juniors that led the team in rushing (Stephen Houston) and receiving (Kofi Hughes) a year ago. With Wilson's track record developing a variety of spread offenses, one has to think it is only a matter of time before the Indiana offense is at least an average or above unit.
One thing that should help is that the 2011 version was so young. Consider:
Tidbit (youth edition) Speaking of youth... Freshmen and sophomores accounted for 1,925 of Indiana's 1,932 yards rushing. Freshmen and sophomores accounted for all 2,393 of Indiana's passing yards and all but one of the team's 378 attempts. Indiana started 12 freshmen against Northwestern on Oct. 29, the most in the F.B.S. last fall. Eight of the 12 starters were true freshmen. Youth still rules the day: Indiana has only eight seniors on the roster.
Defense is another matter entirely.
Last year around this time I started a similar preview series that very quickly got overrun by all that other stuff called real life. Needless to say, the 3000 words that I kicked out on Indiana's past, present, and future were the totality of my effort --- something that isn't happening this year with more support from the rest of the Maize n Brew team.
In that preview I touched on something inherent in Indiana's struggle. Let's hop in the Wayback Machine and take a look:
This isn't groundbreaking stuff, but bear with me as I restate the obvious. In a twelve team conference with an eight game conference schedule there will be 48 wins and 48 losses to go around. Teams like Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan, Wisconsin, and now Nebraska have not only built dynasties on the back of a long tradition of excellence, but in finding so much success for so long those schools have built up sizable economic and infrastructure advantages. Ticket sales, merchandise sales, television coverage all put the teams and more importantly the brand that is Buckeye football or Michigan football in the minds of the whole country. This widens the recruiting net and fills the athletic department coffers with more and more money with which to upgrade facilities and pay top name coaches. Michigan may be in the worst place it has been in over 40 years, but no one can deny that while the product on the field has been subpar, the combination of money, facilities, and tradition make the climb back to the top much less perilous. It's easier to find your way back if you've already been there.
Indiana has none of these advantages. Even with the money from the Big Ten Network, Indiana still ranked last in the Big Ten in terms of revenue in 07-08 (the latest numbers I could find with a quick google search). On top of that, the 54 million in revenue reported is more than 30 million behind the top four (OSU, PSU, UM, UW) and 20 million behind the next two (MSU, Iowa). It certainly doesn't help that the Hoosiers get no national exposure and are all but invisible to ESPN other than when upper half of the Big Ten is putting on the annual offensive clinic in Bloomington that ends up as highlights of Hoosier players 10 yards out of position on deep bombs and steamrolled for long TD runs.
So back to our original numbers: 48 wins and 48 losses, split between 12 teams. Unfortunately for the Hoosiers, this is capitalism at it's finest, and only the strongest survive. On a yearly basis you can usually bet that Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin, Nebraska (and hopefully Michigan again soon) will be taking the majority of these wins, and the middle of the conference the MSU's, Iowa's, Northwestern's, and depending on the year Illinois or Purdue picking over the rest. If Indiana wants to win and win consistently, someone else has to become the doormat. For every 8-0 Big Ten team there will most likely be an 0-8 team at the other end of the rankings.
Other than probably underrating Michigan State's place in the pecking order, I would say that this is pretty much a spot on assessment of Indiana's plight as a Big Ten bottom feeder. There simply aren't enough wins to go around when most of the conference is trending upward or already established as a winning program.
There is only one way to work up to being a Big Ten power: the long way. It takes slow strides toward respectability that lead to better recruiting hauls and yet more wins. Success breeds success. It takes a commitment to both sides of the ball, and defensively the Hoosiers are a long way off.
A losing culture is hard to break. Not only is Indiana working with a roster built on the leftovers of most of the Big Ten, it is a team full of players that have done nothing but lose during their entire college careers.
Paul Myerberg of Pre-Snap Read recently wrote about the perils of a losing football culture, and how hard it is for teams to break out.
This is the elephant in the room for the teams heading into this season on the tail end of an extended losing streak. Ask Ron English about how hard it is to reverse a losing culture: it took English three years and 20-plus losses to reach his team, formerly the perennial whipping boy of the MAC. The task was equally painful for Western Kentucky's Willie Taggart; the Hilltoppers won four games from 2008-10 before reaching bowl eligibility last season.
Or think about the situation Al Golden took on at Temple in 2006. "You find a lot of young men who have lost hope, and you've got to start educating," Golden said in 2009, when the Owls were close to clinching their first bowl berth in three decades. "You have to start to implement your culture and your core values. As you evolve, you have a lot of people who aren't willing to make those sacrifices. So many of them had to move on."
Indiana isn't just coming off a losing streak, the entire program has been mired in mediocrity for years and the only relief from that has been the occasional trip to a third-tier bowl game in mid-December. Indiana is facing down yet another season of low expectations, and the constant stream of horrible to mediocre seasons as far as the eye can see continues to be a great weight around the neck of the Indiana program. Losing seasons lead to more losing seasons. The cycle continues indefinitely.
What does the immediate future look like for Indiana? History tells us it is bleak. The Hoosier should be able to find more success on an offense that will be a year older and in its second season of the Kevin Wilson playbook. The defense, however, shows no signs of significant improvement and it would take something of a small miracle to get this unit dug out from the pile of failure and disappointment it is buried under. With Minnesota once again not on the schedule, Indiana's best chance at a conference win is the annual rivalry game against a Purdue team that seems to be improving, or against an Illinois team in the midst of a coaching transition. Both of these games are most likely losses.
If things are going to change in the win/loss column it will take a complete overhaul of the culture surrounding the program, and that is going to take a long time. Success must be built on a solid foundation. Kevin Wilson and the rest of his staff must begin laying those bricks now.
It will take a Herculean effort and quite a bit of luck for Indiana to change the general tenor of offseason preview pieces from treatises on the culture of losing to actual discussions involving optimism and best case scenarios that don't make you want to cry. Winning is possible and success feeds off itself. It is just a long road from here to there.