INDIANAPOLIS — The boldest statement Tom Allen made during his press conference at Big Ten Media Days was easy to miss. It came at the end of a opening statement in which he shouted out Indiana’s new president, thanked IU’s athletic director Scott Dolson and Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren and praised multiple players in every position group on the team including the long snapper.
But just before he took questions, he slipped in a declaration that seemed like an obvious thing for any coach in the Big Ten to believe, but was something Allen deliberately saved until he believed it was the right time to say it.
“Love Lucas Oil Stadium,” Allen said as he stood at a lectern on a temporary stage near the facility’s north end zone. “It’s our goal to end our season playing here on December 4th.”
By that, Allen meant that the Hoosiers wanted to be playing in the Big Ten championship game. (Their season obviously wouldn’t end there if they reached that game, as they would be playing in a bowl game win or lose, but that’s beside the point.) Obviously, it’s the goal of every team in the Big Ten to play in the conference championship game and win it, so in a sense it goes without saying.
However, it was a significant statement at the first Big Ten Media Days in recent memory in which Indiana arrived with actual expectations. It was a sign that the Hoosiers plan to embrace them and not avoid talking about them.
Allen doesn’t believe in claiming ambitious goals that aren’t realistic. He has frequently told a story about his first season as head coach at Indiana when the team would break down huddles with the words “Big Ten champs.” However, the Hoosiers went 5-7 that year, 2-7 in the Big Ten, and they continued a streak of losing records in Big Ten play at Indiana that went back to 2001. The Hoosiers hadn’t had a winning record in league play since 1993. It was a pipe dream, not a goal, so Allen considered it not worth discussing.
“I just felt like they were empty words,” Allen said. “I didn’t feel like there was belief in those words. I felt like it was more negative than it was possible. It was something that was just said and everybody just jogged off.”
But after an 8-5 season in 2019 that ended with a loss in the Gator Bowl and a 6-2 2020 season in which the Hoosiers stunned Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin before losing to Ole Miss in the Outback Bowl, Allen believes Indiana can now stick its chest out and declare in public that is believes it can do something no IU team has done since 1967. The Hoosiers placed second in the Big Ten East last season behind eventual conference champion and national runner-up Ohio State and they bring back almost all of the starters from the 2020 squad including All-Big Ten quarterback Michael Penix Jr. and All-Americans Ty Fryfogle, Micah McFadden and Tiawan Mullen.
So Allen is now allowing them to publicly discuss taking the next step. He is allowing them to break down huddles with the words “Big Ten champs” for the first time in four years. And he brought it up in his press conference Friday to reinforce the belief that it is a possible outcome in 2021.
“I feel we are very, I don’t know if the word is justified, but I feel very confident in stating that the goal is to win the Big Ten East and play here on December 4th,” Allen said. “I wouldn’t allow our players to even say that before. You have to earn the right to speak as a player when you come into a program. You have to earn the right to say certain things when you stand in front of the media, I believe, because you have to be accountable for your words. Words matter.”
The players Indiana sent to Big Ten Media Days walked, talked, dressed and acted like players who expect to be in the running for a title game. Penix, Fryfogle, McFadden and safety Marcelino McCary-Ball wore slick, tailored suits and matching sneakers. Fryfogle wore a necklace with a large diamond plate that said “Ty Fry” and, at Fryfogle’s suggestion, Penix wore a chain with a goat pendant to declare that he could be the greatest of all time. They bought the necklaces together at a jewelry store at the Keystone Mall in Indianapolis.
“I said, ‘You’re going to be the G.O.A.T. one day’ you need that chain,” Fryfogle said. “You’re going to fit that description.”
So the Hoosiers fully embraced the idea of Allen talking about a title game run.
“I’m all for it,” Fryfogle said. “Whatever coach Allen wants to do, we’re going to try our best to make it happen.”
A stated goal is not the same thing as a guarantee, of course, and Allen acknowledged that winning the Big Ten East means getting past Ohio State, which has won each of the past four Big Ten championship games and five of the past seven. The Buckeyes have finished in the top six in the postseason Associated Press Top 25 in each of the past seven seasons and they haven’t suffered more than two losses in a season since 2011. They reached last year’s College Football Playoff National Championship Game before losing to Alabama.
Cleveland.com conducted a poll of Big Ten beat writers, taking the place of the preseason poll once conducted by the conference. All 34 writers on the panel picked Ohio State to win the Big Ten East. Of those, all but one picked the Buckeyes to win the Big Ten championship game.
Indiana last defeated Ohio State in 1988.
“I can’t say enough great things about them,” Allen said. “They are the gold standard. The way they’ve dominated our conference the last several years is impressive. That’s what we are chasing after. They’re not just in our conference, they’re in our division. In order to get to the championship, you have to win your division first, and they’re the ones in the way.”
Beyond that, Allen said he’s aware that there are areas the Hoosiers have to get better at than they were a year ago. He thinks they can be better on defense at denying opponents explosive plays, better in the running game and better in the return game on special teams.
But as flawed as they still are, he believes they’ve earned the right to speak their dreams out loud.
“I want our players to live out what it feels like to do something that hasn’t happened at Indiana in 54 years,” Allen said. “There’s a reason why it hasn’t happened in 54 years. It’s hard. It’s really tough. We’re not promised anything. That’s why we’re chasing greatness.”
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