Managing Editors Tony Adragna and Jimmy Cavanaugh exchange e-mails back and forth with their thoughts on Indiana Football for the 2012 season.
Tony, it seems that time of year is here once again (no, I’m not talking about of-age individuals spending their Labor Day on a boat, enjoying Lake Monroe with a cooler full of brews close at hand), IU Football is back!
Anyone who’s spent more than a season in Bloomington knows the traditional drill with the Hoosier football team – the fan base holds a reasonable amount of optimism at the outset of the season, allows that optimism to grow throughout a minimally rigorous non-conference schedule and has that optimism crushed as soon as the team makes it to the B1G schedule and takes aim at a conference opponent. Last season gave fans an alternate, less desirable timeline – not even allowing fans to leave the opener against Ball State with any delusions of grandeur.
Did we see positive flashes from last year’s team? Yes. IU had a legitimate chance to win their home opener last year against a Virginia team that won eight games and played in the postseason. They also hung with Penn State throughout a tight conference opener and showed flashes of being a competitive B1G team against Illinois, Ohio State and Purdue. Overall though, last year’s team was ravaged by defection and inexperience, and that showed up from the very first game. A loss to Ball State, a loss to North Texas, a second consecutive 50+ point blowout at the hands of Wisconsin, the list goes on and on.
Last season was rough enough on the players and the coaching staff that they didn’t even take a break from football after their season ending loss to Purdue, they came right back in and got started with their offseason work! The approach they took was inspirational and indicative of a coaching staff dedicated to improving the team, but it also reminds me of Tom Crean’s approach after a 6-25 debut season, which was followed by a 10-21 and a 12-20 season. Both those years had redeeming points and signs of progress, but it was a long hard slog to build the program to the fruition we saw last season. The Hoosier football team didn’t – and doesn’t – have to start literally from scratch, but just looking at this year’s roster, it’s easy to see where the comparisons can be made.
Just looking at the depth chart shows that there are 20 underclassmen listed on the two-deep. Last year, Indiana played 32 freshmen, 16 of them true freshmen – good for 1st and third in the nation respectively. The Hoosiers saw plenty of attrition as well, with a slew of defections and dismissals adding to the expected number of graduating seniors. With the dust settled, Indiana has just eight seniors remaining on the roster (fewest in the country) and of those eight, only five came to IU on scholarship. One thing we can’t deny Tony, is that this is a young team and with them being so young, it’s hard to know how capable they’ll be of making the strides they need to make to improve on last year.
Jimmy, it is that time isn’t it? I remember this time last year there was a lot of buzz surrounding the Indiana program. The nation’s top quarterback, Gunner Kiel, had just committed to Indiana. Kevin Wilson got feisty on a national radio show (the show has since been cancelled), and a Grantland writer, Michael Weinreb, came to IU to do an entire feature story on Kevin Wilson and the IU Football team. I’m not going to lie, I completely bought in to the “Win Today” hype.
As you mentioned, it’s fairly typical for Indiana fans to be optimistic about football until late-September, only to see their hopes and dreams of a bowl game slowly drift away game by game. Last year I think the hype before game one was the highest it has been in a while. Like I mentioned, there was a lot of buzz surrounding the program and I thought Kevin Wilson was some sort of Jedi that could drastically improve a team that basically had no hope.
After the Ball State game came and went, my feelings of optimism quickly turned to pessimism. It seemed that almost daily there were reports of players leaving the program. Soon after, Gunner Kiel announced he wouldn’t be coming to IU, and it seemed that any hope for the program was gone.
However, as the season progressed, I began to see more and more promise for one of the youngest teams in the entire nation. Tre Roberson took over the quarterback duties, and Stephen Houston emerged as the number one running back. Houston ran for 802 yards and 8 touchdowns on the season, as Tre Roberson threw for 937 yards and ran for 426. Although none of those numbers pop off the page, they were steps in the right direction for a team that was looking for anything positive.
Jimmy, as you mentioned, last year’s team was as young as they get, and there were certainly a lot of hiccups along the way. At the same time, you could say that the worst is probably behind the Hoosiers, and I think that puts the fans in a similar position; optimistic as the season approaches without their hopes getting too high.
So how optimistic are fans allowed to be?
In the interest of full disclosure (and because you decided to take the plunge before I did) I may or may not have bought into the ‘Win Today’ hype as well. Let’s be honest, there wasn’t a single IU football fan who wasn’t excited about the idea of a swashbuckling coach coming in and instilling some verve and gumption in a program as traditionally weak as Indiana and fans may have (ok… definitely) gotten a little carried away in their expectations.
Just looking at last year’s defensive roster, it’s hard to pick out a player beyond Jeff Thomas who would’ve been a surefire starter on any other defense in the B1G. A former baseball player was the best player in the secondary at the beginning of last season, for crying out loud! That’s not a crack at Greg Heban, but rather an indicator of just how thin the Hoosiers were in the secondary last season. Jon Fabris, the new defensive line coach, said in a recent interview that there’s only so much that coaches can do to help a team win, and that a wide gap in talent is something that’s really tough to overcome, especially in football. To be frank, that was often evident last season.
You brought up some key players who could play a big role in closing that talent gap this season, at least on the offensive end. Stephen Houston was listed as a second-teamer on the most recent depth chart, but had the single most impressive conference season by a Hoosier running back since BenJarvis Green-Ellis was toting the rock for Indiana. Houston’s 802 yards and 8 touchdowns are impressive enough, but considering that all but 91 of those yards came in conference play – including three 100-yard games – it’s not a stretch to say that he could be one of the best backs in the conference this season.
As a matter of fact, one of the main storylines early this season has been Kevin Wilson continuing to hold Houston to a high standard. Terry Hutchins of the Indianapolis Star wondered earlier this week if Houston’s position behind true freshman Tevin Coleman on the depth chart was Wilson trying to motivate Houston to play to his potential, something that I would 100% believe. You also mentioned Tre Roberson, who embraced the offseason quarterback competition and clearly won the job over challengers Cameron Coffman and Nate Sudfeld. Roberson was strong last year as the first true freshman ever to start at quarterback at Indiana everything that’s been said or written about him indicates he’s only improved. If Houston can follow Roberson’s lead and win back his job, IU may have a legitimately elite backfield on their hands this season.
I’ll repose my question from the top, how optimistic should fans be? At the very least, I think these guys could put up some big numbers on the scoreboard this year.
How optimistic are fans allowed to be? I think there are two ways fans are going to look at this season. They’ll either see a team returning almost everybody that got better and better last year, or a team that went 1-11 last season that didn’t do anything to get drastically better.
Maybe IU killing the optimism immediately last year instead of leading fans on was actually a good thing. Playing with no expectations always seems to be at least a little bit easier. By squashing all hope from the very beginning last year, the team may have squashed an entire era of expected mediocrity. By that, I’m talking about IU fans thinking IU is good because they beat four easy non-conference opponents, only to be letdown when they win one or fewer games in the conference. With the loss to an in-state MAC school right off the bat last season, the expectations for this year don’t seem to be much. I’ve talked to multiple people that aren’t sold IU will beat in-state FCS opponent Indiana State in their opener on Saturday, and I think that’s fair for them to think that way.
With that said, I also think it’s fair for students and fans to expect their Big Ten football team to smash any FCS opponent they come across. The beauty (or beast) of this season for fans is that there seems to be far more uncertainty than expectations. Fans know Tre Roberson and Stephen Houston could lead an explosive offense to put up a plethora of points, but they also recognize that Indiana had a less-than-stellar defense last year.
You mentioned Jon Fabris talking about Indiana lacking in talent, and I can’t say I disagree, but head coach Kevin Wilson had something interesting to say along those same lines. In a press conference Tuesday, Wilson was quoted as saying “We’re not a bad team because of bad players, we’re a bad team because (our) good players don’t play good enough.” That certainly is a “Wilsonism”, but he is basically saying he expects more from the guys, which is something you mentioned with Stephen Houston specifically. Since Wilson has been at Indiana, he has been implementing a culture change, and he is finding out the hard way that it isn’t something that happens overnight, but he’s looking for his team to move in the right direction. The team has done a good job of “addition by subtraction” and weeding out some problems, but by the way Wilson talks, there is obviously still room to grow.
Getting back to your question, I think fans should expect a team that can put up some points, but also need to recognize these guys are still very young and mistakes will be made.
So what kind of record are we talking? Personally, I see something to the tune of 4-8. These guys should be able to win three of their four non-conference games, and even though they may not be one of the best teams in the B1G, I say they find a way to pull out a conference game – maybe Illinois or Penn State on the road, maybe Iowa at home. Getting back to your point, there’s still growth to be had this season and it’s going to be hard to realize that potential this year. These guys will be a lot better, even if the record doesn’t necessarily reflect that.
I’m right up your alley on this one, Jimmy. I think Indiana should win their first three non-conference games, but they’re just not good enough to compete in the Big Ten day in and day out…yet. I think the Hoosiers go 3-1 in the non-conference with a loss to Navy, and then squeak one out in the B1G. I’ll go ahead and predict a win for the Hoosiers in Happy Valley against a depleted Penn State squad, giving Indiana a final record of 4-8. Like you said, this is a team that will be drastically better than last season, but I disagree that the record won’t reflect that. Let’s not forget IU was a 1-11 football team last year, so a 4-8 record would reflect change in a positive direction.
Image courtesy of imagine.iuf.indiana.edu