USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.
Indiana's trip to Missouri on Sept. 20 will mark exactly two decades to the day of the program's last national ranking, achieved after a 59-29 win at Kentucky lifted the Hoosiers to a 3-0 start and the last spot in the Associated Press Top 25. Next came Wisconsin, which handed IU a 62-13 defeat, and the slide was on.
It's been two decades of misery interrupted by fits and starts of competitiveness, jolts of life and excitement accompanied always by an unequal step back – each resulting disappointment essentially disproving Newton's law of equal and opposite reactions.
The past 20 years have seen six coaches, from Bill Mallory through Kevin Wilson. They've seen one winning season, a 7-6 finish in 2007 followed by a combined seven wins during the ensuing two seasons. They've seen five seasons with five or more wins; they've seen 11 seasons with eight or more losses.
They've seen four wins in 32 tries against Wisconsin and Michigan, 13 losses in as many shots at Ohio State, a 6-14 mark against rival Purdue. They've seen 17 multiple-game winning streaks, four three-game winning streaks and no winning streak longer than three. Sad days, indeed.
And they're about to change. Not a 180-degree change, of course – IU isn't becoming Ohio State, giving the Big Ten Conference another national power to forward its cause. But things are changing: Indiana beat Penn State a season ago, a program first; has increased its win total in each of the last two years, a first since 2005-6; and scored 461 points last fall, obliterating the previous program record.
These are also rare times, indeed. Indiana enters 2014 not as a cross-your-fingers, wish-for-the-best bowl hopeful but a true postseason contender, thanks in large part to Wilson's ferociously potent offense. After a lost two decades, the Hoosiers are embracing an unfamiliar mindset: bowl or bust. IU has what it takes to get there.
LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:
The Hoosiers draw eight home games, including dates against Indiana State, Navy, Bowling Green, Minnesota, Illinois and Purdue. It's very possible that the Hoosiers sweep this group, which could lead to as many as eight wins. It's more likely that IU loses one or two, however, leaving precious little room for error but still reaching bowl eligibility. No, I don't think IU is a Big Ten contender. I do think this will be a fun team to watch.
In a nutshell: Indiana cost itself a bowl bid – what would have been the program's second in two decades – with an early-season loss to Navy, one that left the Hoosiers with little room for error during Big Ten play. IU dinged itself further with a painful 42-39 loss to Minnesota, which left Wilson's third team needing a victory in three of four games against Illinois, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Purdue – or, in other words, needing an upset against one of the Badgers and Buckeyes. Indiana's getting there; it's not there quite yet. But last fall did mark another step forward for the program, which is now fully versed in Wilson's powerful offense. Next: Indiana needs to find a defense. Wilson's offseason hire could determine how far IU goes in 2014.
High point: Topping Penn State. Indiana was 0-16 against the Nittany Lions. Now 1-16, and looking for a winning streak.
Low point: The loss to Minnesota. This team knew the story: IU needed to beat the Gophers to ensure bowl eligibility.
Tidbit: Indiana allowed 10 of its 12 opponents to score 35 or more points. The two outliers were Bowling Green, which won the Mid-American Conference, and Penn State. All 11 of the Hoosiers' Football Bowl Subdivision opponents gained at least 400 yards of offense; seven gained at least 500 yards, four gained at least 600 yards and one, Michigan, gained a whopping 751 yards.
Tidbit (coaching edition): It had to happen: Wilson and IU fired Doug Mallory in January, replacing the Hoosiers' maligned defensive coordinator with Brian Knorr, the former Ohio coach who spent the last three seasons running Jim Grobe's defense at Wake Forest. Knorr's first task will be to install his preferred 3-4 defense to blend with IU's existing 4-3 lean, a task he estimated to be roughly half complete at the end of spring drills. Indiana will also have a new offensive coordinator, though this loss stings: Seth Littrell left Bloomington to join Larry Fedora's staff at North Carolina. Kevin Johns – a wildly underrated position coach – will become IU's new coordinator while adding duties as the quarterbacks and receivers coach, while line coach Greg Frey will be the co-coordinator; Frey will have a huge role in the Hoosiers' run-game plans. With defensive line coach Jon Fabris also gone, IU will have three new assistants: Knorr, safeties coach Noah Joseph and defensive tackles coach Larry McDaniel. It's perfectly correct to say that Wilson's future is tied directly to how ably Knorr can pilot this inept defense.
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:
Major-conference defenses, 2013
5. Texas A&M
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Offense: Let's salivate for a moment, if you will, over the potency of Indiana's offense. The Hoosiers have one issue: wide receiver depth – proven receiver depth, rather, since the Hoosiers don't lack for bodies. Elsewhere, this isn't merely the Big Ten's most balanced offense; this could – and should, maybe – be the Big Ten's best offense, period, an equal-opportunity purveyor of points on the ground and through the air. Begin at quarterback, where I can't help but look at Tre Roberson's recent transfer as a good thing, believe it or not. Consider four significant positives, if each is tempered somewhat by losing an athlete of Roberson's gifts: one, IU has the talent in the backfield to offset Roberson's lost rushing totals; two, Nate Sudfeld (2,523 yards and 21 touchdowns) is more than ready to assume the full-time starting role; three, Sudfeld will benefit enormously from not looking over his shoulder, waiting for the hook; and four, this offense – and team as a whole – can now enter the offseason with a clear and unquestioned leader under center. The latter is important.
And so it's Sudfeld, and the offense won't skip a beat. Besides, it'd be hard for any quarterback to fail when teamed with three major assets: this system, this offensive line and running back Tevin Coleman (958 yards and 12 touchdowns). The latter might be the most exciting back in college football, a hit-the-edge, make-you-miss, see-you-later speedster responsible for lifting this offense to another level. To make the most of Coleman's big-play ability, however, IU must team the junior with at least one plodding, short-yardage bruiser. That'll likely be a role shared between senior D'Angelo Roberts (222 yards) and redshirt freshman Myles Graham, while junior Anthony Davis could pick up some touches as Coleman's primary backup. Keep an eye on Coleman – or try to, at least, since he's typically gone in a flash.
The offensive line is loaded with experience and depth. If we're going to nitpick – and it's not easy to do – I'd like to see sophomore Dan Feeney fully rebound from last year's injury and regain his form at right guard, settling a revolving-door position for the Hoosiers a season ago. If Feeney does bounce back – and here's betting he does – IU won't merely have a solid front five; the Hoosiers will have a legitimate nine-lineman rotation, and that's not something you'll see at very many major-conference programs. The starters: Feeney at right guard, junior Jason Spriggs at left tackle, senior Bernard Taylor at left guard, senior Collin Rahrig at center and junior Peyton Eckert at right tackle. In addition, IU has experienced reserve hands in Ralston Evans, Wes Rogers, Jake Reed and Jacob Bailey. No single lineman ranks as the best at his respective position in the Big Ten, but that's not a huge deal: IU's front is solid.
Defense: The move to the 3-4 set is in full swing, with Knorr looking to reach full-install status by the end of August and several members of the front seven adjusting to new roles. Let's say one thing: Indiana's defense remains a train wreck until proven otherwise. However, IU does have the up-front size to slide nicely into the 3-4, particularly if sophomore Raphael Green (25 tackles), redshirt freshman Nate Hoff and senior Christopher Cormier can occupy interior linemen at the center of the line – and do so as a group, since I doubt each individual's ability to produce in an every-down capacity. IU has moved 325-pound sophomore Darius Latham (22 tackles) to the outside, where he'll serve as the bigger of the Hoosiers' two wide-framed ends; the other should be senior Bobby Richardson (39 tackles), who also transitions from the interior. In terms of depth at end, the Hoosiers can call on junior Adarius Rayner and sophomore Shawn Heffern, if not move one of the tackles outside in certain packages.
Knorr's defense will also retain the ability to shift back to the 4-3 by simply sliding converted ends Nick Mangieri (26 tackles, 3.0 sacks), David Kenney and Zack Shaw back down a level. In the base set, however, this threesome – headed by Mangieri, a returning starter – will hold down the fort as IU's rush outside linebacker, adding size and aggressiveness to a fairly young and promising grouping. Three starting jobs are settled: Mangieri on the outside, flanking inside linebackers David Cooper (85 tackles, 6.0 for loss) and T.J. Simmons (68 tackles). At the second outside spot, IU could turn to either senior Flo Hardin (59 tackles) or sophomore Clyde Newton (32 tackles). The shift in style and increased aggressiveness can only mean more production when compared to last year's unimpressive performance. But there's ample room for improvement, to put it politely.
No unit on this defense is actually good, but the secondary is worse than the others. With largely the same cast in the fold – outside of safety Greg Heban – Indiana is banking on improvement coming from two factors: one, an uptick in overall experience, and two, a beefed-up pass rush. I'm still cautiously pessimistic. If I'm Indiana, I toss each job up for grabs, hoping that the incumbent starters – cornerbacks Tim Bennett (73 tackles) and Michael Hunter and safety Mark Murphy (84 tackles) – are either pushed to a new level by the competition or leapfrogged by high-impact youngsters such as Antonio Allen, Rashard Fant, Chase Dutra, Noel Padmore and the incoming freshmen. Take Bennett and Hunter, for example, a pair of gamblers who often leave IU's pass defense out to dry. Let's put it simply: Indiana's returning core of starters and leading reserves aren't good enough if not teamed with a potent pass rush. The youngsters could develop into top-line starters. I'd do everything I could to put the freshmen and sophomores in major roles. It can't get any worse, right?
Special teams: One of redshirt freshmen Aaron Del Grosso and Griffin Oakes will replace Mitch Ewald, one of the most reliable kickers in program history. One of the two rookies could also hand kickoffs, though that could also fall to junior punter Erich Toth, a returning starter. This might be the biggest loss of all: Ewald and IU's kickoff teams were fantastic in 2013. If you negate that strength – and I think we can – IU's special teams are extremely average, if not worse.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH:
Wide receiver: Among the departed: Cody Latimer, who eventually earned due praise as one of the top receivers in college football; Kofi Hughes, a commendably reliable second fiddle; Duwyce Wilson, a space-filling target on the two-deep; and tight end Ted Bolser, the best at his position in program history. So if not starting from scratch – some talent and experience does return – IU is reloading, in a sense, at a crucial position in Wilson's offense.
The new headliner is senior Shane Wynn (46 receptions for 633 yards and 11 scores), an all-conference contender whose diminutive frame belies an ability to beat coverage over the deep middle of the field and in the red zone. Beyond Wynn, IU returns seniors Nick Stoner (12 for 226) and Isaiah Roundtree (14 for 136), junior Andre Booker, redshirt freshman Isaac Griffin and sophomores Mitchell Page, Ricky Jones and Caleb Cornett – with no one projected target of the proven variety, outside of Wynn, but all with a firm knowledge of Wilson's pass-game system.
One thing to like: IU's returning receiver corps is flexible, meaning a starter like Wynn, for example, could shift between the slot and the outside in the search for mismatched defensive personnel. In addition to the holdovers, IU will add as many as five freshmen to the mix come fall camp. Keep an eye on two in particular: Simmie Cobbs has the frame to contribute immediately – we'll see about his aptitude – and Dominique Booth was one of the Midwest's top receiver recruits. These receivers will carry the added pressure of replacing Bolser's underneath production; IU simply doesn't have a tight end capable of matching his impact in this offense.
GAME(S) TO WATCH:
Bowling Green: Indiana starts with Indiana State, a clear win, and then shouldn't face a non-bowl team until Rutgers on Nov. 15. Unlike in 2013, this year's slate features only six home games; the road trips send the Hoosiers to Bowling Green, Missouri, Iowa, Michigan, Rutgers and Ohio State. This team won't get to the postseason without taking care of the must-win games, beginning with a date with the Falcons on Sept. 13. I fear that a loss there could snowball.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:
In a nutshell: Well, it's time – and it's been a long time coming. If not possessed by the sort of cohesive, offense-to-defense balance needed to vault into the upper tier of the Big Ten, these Hoosiers are ready to knock back a few decades of inconsistency and reach a bowl game: IU should win six or seven games during the regular season, riding a powerful offense and a can't-be-worse defense to three or four wins in the Big Ten and a spot in the postseason. Anything less than a 6-6 regular season would be a substantial disappointment.
The defense stinks, but this offense could be special. There are no definite weaknesses, merely a weak link: IU is short on experience at receiver, but I trust in the staff's ability to create a powerful passing game despite the changing cast of targets and receiving options. Sudfeld is more than capable of leading the charge as Wilson's triggerman; the offensive line is extremely, extremely underrated; and Coleman is one of the most electric skill players in all of college football. It's an offense to write home about – and an offense worthy of playing into December.
So the defense is terrible. Is that going to stop IU? It'll slow the Hoosiers down, I think, but it won't stop six or seven wins from becoming a reality. It can only get better: Knorr's an upgrade, for one, and I don't think IU will struggle mightily in the shift to the 3-4, thanks to the front seven's readiness for the shift. The secondary is a huge concern, true, but I hope Wilson, Knorr and this staff won't hesitate to slot the younger core into the mix should the returning cast continue to struggle. The defense might be terrible, it might be devastatingly frustrating, it might be horrible … but it'll be good enough to get to 6-6.
The schedule does prevent a major breakthrough, however. There's really no time for air: Indiana State's a win, as noted, but IU will be hard-pressed to find extended winning streaks from September through November. So it's crucial that this team not slip up against a North Texas or Rutgers, for example, and notch at least one upset win – against a Michigan State or Michigan, for example. Two such wins could mean an eight-win season and a top-four finish in the East Division. That's probably too much. But six wins? Let's do it.
Dream season: Indiana's breakthrough comes behind a rejuvenated defense, one that works in concert with another powerful offense to lift IU to an 8-4 regular season.
Nightmare season: The Hoosiers fall back to 3-9, ratcheting up the temperature on Wilson's seat.
Who's No. 68? The last time this team's coach had a losing season he won a combined 19 games during the following two years.
RANKING EVERY FBS TEAM FOR 2014