Photo by Mike Schumann / The Daily Hoosier

IU football: Consensus forming that Hoosiers can climb a rung in Big Ten East hierarchy

Circle the date.

No, not the Old Oaken Bucket game in November.  That one is obvious.

Not a Halloween contest at Memorial Stadium against Penn State.  That game against the Nittany Lions has the potential to be one of the highest profile games played in Bloomington in years.

But it depends on how IU performs up to that point, and specifically, the week prior.

No, the defining game of Indiana’s 2020 season should be Oct. 24.  If all goes according to plan, the Hoosiers should be riding a five-game winning streak when the Michigan State Spartans arrive in Bloomington for the seventh game of IU’s 2020 season.

What will define progress in 2020?

Another winning season and a return to a bowl game feel like musts.  Winning a bowl game would be clear progress.  Indiana needs to win a bowl game for the first time since 1991.

But with random opponents and other extenuating circumstances, bowl games often feel more like a snapshot of program health rather than a clear measure of where things are headed.

If Indiana truly is a program on the rise it will eventually have to compete with, and defeat, the big boys in its conference.

That means eventually ending those embarrassing losing streaks to Ohio State and Michigan.  It means getting over the hump more often against Penn State, who owns a 22-1 record against IU.

But the clear and most attainable target on the Big Ten East ladder resides in East Lansing.

Going through a coaching change, and with a roster that has churned significantly, Michigan State can be had in 2020.

That’s not just our take.  That is the consensus that is forming as preseason college football publications have been released this spring and summer.

Athlon Sports and Street & Smith’s have both pegged IU to finish in fourth place in the East Division ahead of MSU.

247Sports’ preseason top 25 has IU receiving votes while Michigan State does not.

ESPN’s FPI and S&P+ advanced metrics both like IU ahead of Michigan State.

What gives IU the edge this year?  This is how Athlon described each team:

4. Indiana

Last season’s eight victories marked the program’s highest win total (eight) since 1993. With 17 starters back, there’s a good chance Indiana matches or exceeds that mark in 2020. Quarterback Michael Penix Jr. is a big-time talent but needs to stay healthy after missing significant chunks of the last two years due to injury. Penix has three returning starters up front and a strong group of options at the skill positions, including running back Stevie Scott III, receiver Whop Philyor and tight end Peyton Hendershot. The Hoosiers have a solid defense in place with nine starters back, as this group held teams to 24.4 points a contest. Cornerback Tiawan Mullen is a rising star, and linebacker Micah McFadden should be among the best in the Big Ten at his position. If Penix can stay healthy, a nine-win 2020 campaign isn’t out of the question for coach Tom Allen’s squad.

5. Michigan State

New coach Mel Tucker will have his work cut out for him in 2020. The cancellation of spring practice hindered Tucker and his staff’s ability to implement new schemes on both sides of the ball, as well as find a new quarterback following the departure of Brian Lewerke. Junior Rocky Lombardi, redshirt freshman Payton Thorne or sophomore Theo Day are set to battle for the job under center, and the winner of this competition will be tasked with jumpstarting an offense that managed only seven passing plays longer than 40 yards over the last two years. Cody White and Darrell Stewart will be missed at receiver, but Western Michigan transfer Jayden Reed and sophomore Jalen Nailor are a good starting point. Running back Elijah Collins needs more help up front but he is one of the bright spots on offense. Defense hasn’t been a problem in East Lansing the last couple of seasons, and Tucker’s background, along with the hire of coordinator Scottie Hazelton should keep this unit performing at a high level. Only three starters are back, so there’s plenty of uncertainty on the depth chart for 2020. The schedule features non-conference matchups against BYU and Miami, and the Spartans have to play at Iowa and host Minnesota in crossover action with the West.

It all kind of makes sense, right?  The bottom line is Indiana has much more continuity going into a 2020 season surrounded by circumstances that place a premium on just that.  Headlined by the departure of former head coach Mark Dantonio, the Spartans have a lot of new faces in the program, and an offseason that hasn’t been conducive to getting everyone acclimated.

There is still not a consensus that IU will take care of business.  Lindy’s likes Michigan State to hang on to fourth place ahead of the Hoosiers.

Doubting that Indiana can take down MSU in the standings and on Oct. 24 has plenty of support in the series history.

IU had exactly one win over MSU since Dantonio took over in 2007.

The Spartans hold a 48-16-2 all-time advantage.

But this moment in time has the look of an inflection point.

And Oct. 24 — four months from today — is the date to circle.

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