The predictions I have made here are what I think is our best-case scenario. The wins I have predicted are games I feel like we should win if we play to the best of our ability, and the losses are to teams that I honestly think are better teams than us. I very easily could be, and probably will be, wrong. By the time we reach the IU game though I doubt we will have much to play for except bowl positioning, if that.
Indiana will be a very interesting team to follow this year. They have just about the easiest schedule of any team in the Big Ten, and if coach Hep were still around they would be a shoe-in for a bowl game. Now I am not so sure. How this team responds will decide their fate. It won't be the best team in the league and won't be a threat to win the Big Ten title, but these guys are from being the same old Hoosiers.
Last Season for the Hoosiers:
Southern Illinois and Connecticut: Two losses, each by a touchdown that should not have happened. The Connecticut one is more excusable, as at least they are another struggling BCS conference program that had beaten Indiana before in 2003. It wasn't a good loss, but it was far from a crippling one. The Southern Illinois loss was different though. Even with the Hep crisis going on at that point there was no excuse for it. It's a shame that the team couldn't get it done that day, because Hep deserved a bowl game and that would have got it done.
There were other missed opportunities as well. Facing Minnesota Indiana had a golden chance to get win #6 and was on a bit of a roll before the Gophers started their own bowl push with a 63-26 thumping. The bucket game was an affront to American football as neither team seemed to want that game. Twice Indiana fumbled inside the five yard line going in to score, costing them the game. Most importantly, the Hoosiers showed some hope for the future.
They got a win on the road in the Big Ten for the first time since 2001. They won five games for the first time since 2001. They beat a ranked team for the first time since a shocking upset over Oregon in 2004 that made me double check my phone to make sure the score feature was working right. There was enough success that there is plenty to build on this year.
The key to Indiana getting to a bowl game this season will be its non-conference slate. A very bad Indiana State team is a win regardless of what happens, and is the perfect warm-up for a team that will need football to merely be a game again. A road trip to Western Michigan is not automatic, but if Indiana wants to be considered as improved they need to win it. Akron will be a win at home, while Ball State could be a little tricky after the Cardinals nearly knocked off Indiana last year. If Indiana gets past all four of those games unscathed they will scrounge together at least two wins from Northwestern, Minnesota, Illinois, and Michigan State.
This will be the strength of the team, and the reason it has a chance to be the first Hoosier squad in 14 years to go to a bowl game. If Indiana can develop any kind of a running game they will be even more dangerous. Indiana's leading rusher last year was Kellen Lewis with only 441 yards. Nearly a quarter of those yards came in the bucket game as he ran for 103 against us. Indiana can pass the ball fairly well, but its running game is rather anemic and will need to be much, much better to have success this season. Marcus Thigpen, Demetrius McCray, and Josiah Sears have to be able to move the ball so Indiana doesn't become one dimensional on offense.
Of course, having Kellen Lewis as an Antwaan Randle El clone back there will help the running game. As a running quarterback there is always the danger of injury, and if he goes down with an Indiana doesn't have many other options. He's a god leader and makes IU very dangerous with both his legs and his arm. What's even more dangerous is that he has two years left after this year. If he can't lead Indiana to a win in the bucket game, then I don't know who else can.
The receivers that Lewis has to throw to are pretty good, with James Hardy leading the way. Hardy may be the best receiver in the Big Ten, but he's been inconsistent for most of his career. He's the type of guy who either torches a team for 150 and three TD's, or is barely heard from. Last year his best day yardage-wise came against us with 151 yards, but he only got in the end zone once. James Bailey is back as a consistent number 2 option, but other than that there isn't a ton of proven production. In Indiana's spread offense someone else like Brandon Walker-Roby, Terrance Turner, or Andrew Means will need to contribute greatly.
By Big Ten standards Indiana still has a very small offensive line that is going to get pushed around by bigger and better teams. This is where Lewis' mobility comes in handy, but it also still makes him more open to injury. Pete Saxon is the biggest lineman at 315 pounds on the left side, but only Cody Faulkner at 300 pounds is over three bills. Everyone else is young, undersized, but has plenty of potential to grow. Pass protection will be an issue, as there are about nine guys vying for the five starting spots right now. Saxon and Rodger Saffold appear to be the only locks to start at the moment.
Indiana simply has to become more than the Kellen Lewis and James Hardy show. Those two are great talents to have, but if you can close them off suddenly the Hoosiers become very ordinary. The two are good enough to do some special things against unprepared teams though.
IU's defense has been an afterthought for years in Bloomington, and this year the strategy is merely to survive with some young guys while the offense tries to simply outscore the other team. To me, this sounds an awful lot like our strategy last season. While the offense struggled to protect the quarterback last year, the defense struggled to reach the quarterback by gaining only 14 sacks in 12 games. Still, there are some strengths defensively.
Two of those strengths are Tracy Porter and Leslie Majors at cornerback. Porter was second team All-Big Ten last year and had four interceptions, while Majors is incredibly fast on the other side. He was a sprinter for IU's track team and will never be out of any play. Both starting safeties are probably as much of a liability in pass coverage as Porter and Majors are strengths. Nick Polk and Austin Thomas are sophomores and should be decent against the run. Polk is a former receiver that will be a first year defensive starter and Thomas has been terrible in pass coverage.
The linebackers are small but built for speed and should be pretty good. Geno Johnson, Adam McClurg, and Will Patterson are projected as starters, but a couple of freshmen in Tyler Replogle and Dane Conwell will likely push for playing time. Whoever is playing in the three linebacker spots will be all over the field as Indiana plays a swarming style of defense. It sacrifices size for speed, and is a risky gamble.
The defensive line needs to have a night and day better year, much like our own. Last year Indiana could hardly stop the run or get to the quarterback and this year appears to be more of the same. Tackle Greg Brown is the best returning lineman and has some good size and strength. Joe Kremer is the other tackle and is over 300 pounds, but needs to do more. Jammie Kirlew needs to use his quickness on the end more to get into the backfield, while a loss for us in the recruiting wars looks to be emerging as the other starter up front in the person of Greg Middleton. Fabiene Boone will also rotate with Middleton to provide more depth off the bench. Kremer is the only senior so if the line can get better, it will be good for awhile. The potential is there for them to come together and surprise a few teams.
Indiana Special Teams:
While Thigpen hasn't done a whole lot as a running back he is more than dangerous as a kicker returner. In his career he has taken three kicks to the house and is averaging more than 30 yards per return. While he'll obviously be working after the defense has given points he has the talent to either get them back immediately or put the offense in position to do so quickly. Porter is almost as good returning punts with an 18.6 yards per return average. Both are huge advantages that the Hoosiers will have over us unless Sheets and Bryant can break a few.
Austin Starr is the kicker and has a game-winner to his credit by hitting the kick that beat Illinois last year. He hit on 12 of 15 field goals but didn't show a ton of range. Michael Hines will take over for Tyson Beattie, who was one of the better punters in the conference last year. This is big because he'll need to perform well to help out a shaky defense.
This is where the Coach Hep factor comes in. How will the team respond? Even I, a long time Purdue fan, would love to see the Hoosiers break through to a bowl game this year in honor of Hep, as long as it doesn't come at our expense. Turning the reigns over to Bill Lynch helps with a dose of continuity, but I am not convinced he is nearly as good of a head coach as Hoeppner. As I wrote earlier this summer I was a big admirer of what Terry Hoeppner did at IU. He took a job barely anyone wanted and actually was beginning to make it work when so many others had failed. It's huge though that this team believes in itself for the first time in years, and it is all because of him. It's still short on talent compared to many teams on its schedule, but that gap will not matter as much this year. It's a crucial year for the Hoosiers, and missing a bowl game again could kill all the momentum they have gained.
Obviously they had a shot to get to one last year and couldn't close the deal against us. This year, in the same situation but at home they could be even more dangerous. Both teams played very poorly in last year's game, and I would love to see a hard fought, well-played game in Bloomington this year. We may have an easier time if Indiana has already clinched bowl eligibility, but I doubt it.
Indiana is closing the gap because they are getting better while we are getting worse. This is a crucial year for the in-state recruiting wars as well. If we struggle and slide past the Hoosiers we could be in for a free-fall. I will not be counting them out this year at all. They are a lot like us in that they could have a big year and win about eight games just as easily as they could lose eight games.
Who knows? This one is so far down the line and so many variables will come into play by then that I can't even think of right now that it's hard to say what will happen. We could potentially see one of the great bucket games ever in terms of both teams having good years. The last time (and so far only time) Purdue and Indiana have met with both teams headed toward a bowl game was 1979. Seeing as how I was barely a month old then I don't really remember seeing the game. This year could easily be the second year this happens.
Right now I only see Indiana as a two man team on both sides of the ball, but they have enough youth for someone to emerge and make a difference. It should be a great atmosphere in Bloomington regardless, as I think Indiana has enough to at least finally get to a bowl game this year, and so do we.
I still think we are the better team, but that is my prediction on August 13th. On November 17th I very easily could change my mind. There could be quite a few offensive fireworks that day, but I think we have more weapons on both sides of the ball and will get the job done again. Things could change in a few years. Purdue 34, Indiana 28.