FIrst things first, the season isn’t over. Indiana is 3-6 and could clearly end up 6-6 based on its remaining strength of schedule (at Illinois, Rutgers, at Purdue). Based on what we’ve seen of these opponents and Indiana we’d say that such a running of the table isn’t likely. Each game is likely a coin toss, give or take a few points either way. But this isn’t about winning out or bowl games. This is about “breaking through”, and breaking through has always been about beating the big boys. Indiana’s 2017 schedule was full of big boys. Specifically — Wisconsin, Michigan State, Michigan, Penn State and Ohio State.
Look, we get it. Tom Allen was a new coach trying to rally his team around a common cause. And the cause is understandable. What is his team motto supposed to be? “More of the Same!”? Of course not. And “Win the Games You are Supposed To” doesn’t exactly fire up the troops either. If IU football is ever going to be truly relevant, it is going to have to break through and beat the big boys with some degree of regularity. See Iowa 55 Ohio St. 24 as exhibit A. Will it ever happen? We don’t know. Tom Allen certainly seems to have the passion and energy to lead this team to new heights. It’s cliche, but he probably could get people to run through brick walls. He’s already worked wonders with the transformation of the defense. But it is going to take more than that to truly transform a program that has been mediocre to bad throughout virtually its entire history.
Today we summarize the reasons why the break through didn’t happen in 2017, and in so doing highlight what it will take for it to finally happen:
(1) The Talent Gap. It pains us to say it, but it is the elephant in the room. Despite some recent improvements in its recruiting results, Indiana has been in the bottom half of the B1G recruiting rankings, well, pretty much since they’ve ranked recruiting classes. Here is Indiana’s B1G ranking for the last 4 years according to 247 Sports:
2017 – 13th
2016 – 11th
2015 – 9th
2014 – 9th
Based on these rankings, is it really surprising that there has been no break through? We’d argue that Indiana might be competing right where it should be. Sure, great coaching can bridge the talent gap, but it only goes so far. Sometimes guys are just bigger, stronger and faster. Is there hope for the future? Maybe. Indiana is currently ranked 8th for 2018, but clearly that isn’t a sea change. The talent gap will continue to be an obstacle, and it will likely continue to present the biggest challenges on special teams and overall depth where the big guys’ backups likely could be starting for Indiana.
(2) Quarterback Transition. You have to ask yourself, how likely is the “break through” in a year where the QB is a redshirt freshman? Peyton Ramsey is an impressive young player and seems likely to be one of Indiana’s best before he’s done — but for now he is just a freshman. It certainly isn’t Tom Allen’s fault that Richard Lagow has been very inconsistent. He looked like Peyton Manning in the first half against Ohio State. A couple weeks later he was playing so bad that he got benched for some freshman named Peyton. If Ramsey continues on his current pace and does end up being a really good B1G quarterback, then maybe, just maybe, a break through in his Junior or Senior year could happen.
(3) The Trenches. Much has been made about Indiana’s number of returning starters in 2017, but don’t lose sight of the starters that were lost. The offensive line was the hardest hit, losing two-time All-American guard Dan Feeney, along with Dimitric Camiel, Jacob Bailey and Wes Rogers. It’s no coincidence that Indiana has struggled to run the ball in 2017. That’s the last thing you want when you are trying to break in a freshman QB. Again, we wouldn’t be surprised to see any break through occur when Indiana had an experienced O-line and a more balanced offense.
(4) Overnight Sensation? Was Coach Allen a victim of his own success? Did the overnight turnaround of the defense in 2016 set unrealistic expectations for the program? Did his own enthusiasm set unrealistic expectations? We have more questions than answers at this point. This will be analyzed in detail in a separate story, but when college football programs have broken through, did it ever really happen in a new coach’s year 1? We usually think about these things taking a few years to materialize as a new coach puts his stamp on the program.
(5) The Schedule and Overall B1G Strength. Playing Wisconsin, Michigan State, Michigan, Penn State and Ohio State is never going to be easy. In 2017, it has been particularly brutal. All five are good teams, with no one having a down year in any meaningful way. Don’t be fooled by Michigan. They are probably the best team in the conference if they could get their own QB situation figured out. Prognosticators thought Michigan State might be the worst of the five and they are currently in first place in the B1G East. And about that B1G East, unfortunately for Indiana, all five except Wisconsin are a fact of life. Every year. Maybe you break through against 1 of them, maybe 2, but if breaking through means winning the division, then that would really be breaking through.
(6) Injuries. We don’t want to make too much of this. Every team has injuries. But as discussed, Indiana doesn’t have the depth to overcome injuries like the big boys. So when you lose significant time due to injuries to among others leading returning WR Nick Westbrook, #2 WR Donovan Hale, big play returner and WR J-Shun Harris, starting defensive lineman Nile Sykes, and starting DBs Marcelino Ball and A’Shon Riggins, who knows? The Indy Star reported that 18 players have missed time, including at least 11 players you would classify as starters for Indiana. Let’s just say maybe some of those guys might have been enough to tip the scales in some of the closer games.