Indiana football’s margin for error is gone.
The Hoosiers host Rutgers on Saturday for their homecoming game, and it’s essentially a must-win game. That would’ve been the case even if their loss to No. 2 Michigan over the weekend was less lopsided. The 52-7 defeat was unquestionably disappointing, after an encouraging start to the game, but a big loss wasn’t unexpected in that matchup.
But now, halfway through the regular season, Indiana has to get back on track before it’s too late.
The math is simple. IU is 2-4 with six games to go. It’d need six wins to earn a bowl game bid. There’s the outside chance of five-win teams qualifying if not enough teams reach six wins, and five-win teams would go in based on APR ranking, and IU is tied for 45th. But that’s obviously not a scenario the Hoosiers should count on.
So Indiana needs to pick up four more wins to reach a bowl game. The team’s remaining opponents, in order, are Rutgers (home), Penn State (away), Wisconsin (home), Illinois (away), Michigan State (home), and Purdue (away).
Nothing is ever guaranteed in sports, but Indiana defeating Penn State would be one of the biggest upsets of the college football season. IU also seems likely to be a double-digit underdog at home against Wisconsin, although they may be without starting quarterback Tanner Mordecai.
So barring surprises in those contests, that leaves four games — including this Saturday’s. The Scarlet Knights are off to a solid 5-2 start, knocking on the door of bowl eligibility themselves. The Hoosiers are 5.5-point underdogs on FanDuel Sportsbook.
A loss here would — in all likelihood — remove Indiana from bowl eligibility for a third straight season. If that happens, some major questions need to be asked about the state of the program. It’s not simply that the Hoosiers would be missing a bowl game — their games are becoming increasingly uncompetitive, and the quality of football is declining.
How sustainable is this for IU going into the future? This version of Indiana football, if not already there, is on the brink of entering perpetual doldrums. These sorts of seasons — with relatively few wins and lopsided losses, followed by losing a bevy of players to the transfer portal — are becoming commonplace. Indiana has endured plenty of prolonged stretches of disappointing seasons throughout its history, but the transfer portal will make it harder to retain any talent that’s developed through those periods.
Obviously, it circles back to head coach Tom Allen. He took over the Hoosiers in December 2016 with the Hoosiers on their way to a second consecutive bowl game. It took Allen two years to get back to a bowl game, but he had the program on a clear positive trajectory in 2019 and 2020. But Indiana has regressed beyond the point where it was when he took over.
A loss to Rutgers, and it’s time to start asking how much longer Indiana can go on like this. Allen’s buyout is high, and doesn’t reach a more manageable figure until December 2024. And, to be clear, changing head coaches would not solve all the issues with IU football. But at a certain point, the losses incurred as a football program and athletic department from continuing down the same path would outweigh the financial losses from the buyout. But when, exactly, is that point?
Many are already asking those questions, but losing to Rutgers would remove any doubts about the timing. For any evident ails the program has, the most staunch optimists can hang on to still-alive postseason dreams.
A loss to Rutgers would all but extinguish those hopes.
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