It can be done, you know. If college football's long history tells us anything, it is that a) you can have good seasons at Indiana, and b) it is really, really difficult.
In 1967, John Pont's Hoosiers surged forward after a long era of poor play (IU went 14-50-1 from 1960-66) to surge to a Rose Bowl bid and a No. 4 final ranking. They were ranked in portions of each of the next two seasons as well. In 1979, Lee Corso's Hoosiers went 8-4 and won the Holiday Bowl. From 1986-93, Indiana went to six bowl games under Bill Mallory, winning at least seven games four times and finding themselves ranked in portions of six seasons. In other words, they have won in the lifetimes of most writers and many fans. When former Oklahoma offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson took the head coaching job in 2011, he did so with the knowledge that you can at least go about 8-4 in Bloomington if things go your way.
Of course, he also did so with the knowledge that Indiana hasn't actually won eight games in a season since 1993. In 2007, an Indiana team motivated by the tragic loss of head coach Terry Hoeppner to cancer, won seven games for their fallen coach. They have averaged just 3.3 wins per season since then.
For a while there, it might have seemed as if Wilson had found himself a shortcut. On July 27 of last year, eventual five-star quarterback Gunner Kiel committed to Wilson and his homestate Hoosiers. It appeared that Wilson, who tends to know what to do with star quarterbacks, had both found a significant recruiting boost and given a dormant program sudden life.
Less than three months later, after an awful start to Indiana's season that saw the Hoosiers start 1-7 with losses to Ball State and North Texas, Kiel reconsidered his commitment. It was the start of quite a soap opera for Kiel -- he committed to LSU in late December, then committed to Notre Dame three weeks later (side note: can we start using a different, more accurate word than "commitment" here?) -- but it was the end of the story for Indiana. The Hoosiers finished 1-11 (all of Wilson's potential offensive acumen did nothing to help an awful defense), then signed the No. 66 recruiting class according to Rivals.com, just ahead of No. 67 Marshall and No. 68 Arkansas State. Among major conference teams, the class ranked ahead of just those of Wake Forest, Minnesota, Kansas, UConn and Iowa State. Granted, it was an upgrade over Bill Lynch's 2010 class (92nd), but still, it was a "what could have been" class for what is mostly a "what hasn't been" program. (This jived with what happened when Wilson took the job as well: four members of Wilson's original, impressive staff left for other jobs before the season even started.)
To a certain level, you can win at Indiana. You really can. And just about any new coach will suffer through a couple of seasons before figuring things out -- Pont took Indiana to the 1968 Rose Bowl in his third season after going 3-16-1 in the first two, Mallory took Indiana to the 1986 All-American Bowl in his third season after a 4-18 start, and in what would have been Hoeppner's third season, the Hoosiers attended the 2007 Insight Bowl. Entering Year Two in basketball country, however, Wilson is still looking for traction, to put it as kindly as possible.
So now the dust has settled, and Wilson has quite frankly still put together a really interesting staff. He brings to the table a history of exciting, ridiculously fast-paced offenses, and his defensive coaches are known for ferocity and attacking. It all seems to work well in theory ... now will he have the talent in crimson and white to actually do anything interesting, or will Wilson's tenure die in the conceptual stage? […]
Are you an optimist or a pessimist? An optimist sees a decent passing offense, a reasonably healthy number of returning starters, an encouraging YPP margin, and the fact that Indiana almost made a bowl despite a cripplingly bad defense. (Hmm, spell check is telling me "cripplingly" is actually a real word. I was not expecting that.) An optimist also would see that the Hoosiers' 2011 schedule really isn't that much more difficult than last year's. Virginia is better than anybody they played in non-con last year, but Virginia still isn't very good, and the game's at home. So if the Hoosiers can go 4-0 out of conference and knock off Purdue again, they're right back within one game of bowl eligibility!
A pessimist sees a defense that was truly, truly awful, an offense that was one-dimensional (with a running game that isn't just guaranteed to be better this year), a coaching staff that will be handcuffed by the talent (or lack thereof) on hand, a turnover margin that isn't guaranteed to improve, and a schedule that, while not devastating, is still indeed a little tougher.
I've always been a big Kevin Wilson fan, and I admire him for taking on this building (salvaging?) project. But I cannot say I am tremendously optimistic for Wilson's chances of success any time soon. I assume I'm probably not the only one who feels that way. The Hoosiers are playing catch-up in terms of their level of talent, playing catch-up in terms of facilities, and ... just playing catch-up, period.
In rebuilding (or, yes, salvaging) projects, Year One is really like Year Zero. When installing a new system with limited talent on hand, even Bear Bryant or Joe Paterno might have a terrible first season on that job. That is the best spin I can give on Indiana's 2011 season; it was awful. The Wilson era began with a 27-20 loss to a mediocre-at-best Ball State team, and after a tight loss versus a surprisingly good Virginia team and a lackluster win over South Carolina State, the Hoosiers lost at North Texas. And in Big Ten play, the Hoosiers alternated between competetive-but-frustrating losses (a 16-10 loss to Penn State, a 33-25 loss to Purdue) and blowouts. Wisconsin 59, Indiana 7. Michigan State 55, Indiana 3. The offense did improve a bit as the season progressed, but the defense went from bad to worse.
First 7 Games: Opponents 30.8 Adj. Points per game, Indiana 23.6 (minus-7.2)
Last 5 Games: Opponents 32.4 Adj. Points per game, Indiana 27.1 (minus-5.3)
That Indiana happened to start an intriguing dual-threat, true freshman quarterback for the final five games is a point of optimism for the Hoosiers. But that defense; oh, that defense.
Believe it or not, there was a silver lining to Indiana's 2011 season. It came on the offensive side of the ball, when, just days before Gunner Kiel announced that he was reconsidering his Indiana commitment, a player just one year older than Kiel began to hint that the Hoosiers already had their quarterback anyway. True freshman Tre Roberson stepped into the starting lineup following a particularly awful performance by then-sophomore Edward Wright-Baker versus Wisconsin (6-for-15 passing for 54 yards, with two interceptions and two sacks), and he single-handedly raised the potential of Indiana's offense by three or four points. He was far from spectacular, but he was an improvement. He completed 16 of 24 passes while rushing for 92 (pre-sack) yards versus Iowa. He completed 14 of 26 passes while rushing for 127 (pre-sack) yards versus Northwestern. He completed 11 of 21 passes while rushing for 92 (pre-sack) yards versus Ohio State. And following a glitch versus Michigan State, he completed 17 of 26 passes while rushing for 88 (pre-sack) yards in the finale versus Purdue. With Roberson in the lineup, Indiana had a perfectly average offense. And compared to the first half of the season, "average" was a distinct improvement.
Of course, average is also average.
Roberson's future at Indiana is an interesting one. When Wilson was offensive coordinator under Randy Walker at Northwestern, he coached a quarterback named Zak Kustok, who was just mobile enough to help Wilson and Walker keep opponents on their heels and establish what really might have been the first modern, mainstream, run-heavy spread offense. Just because Roberson doesn't resemble Sam Bradford doesn't mean Wilson can't figure out how to utilize him. That said…
…Wilson did just hire Seth Littrell as his new offensive coordinator. Littrell was last seen at Arizona, engineering one of the most shamelessly pass-heavy offenses in the country. That suggests that Wilson wants to throw the ball, and he probably wants to do so more effectively than Roberson did last year.
Q: Is it safe to say you want to pass more?
A: That is definitely something we tried to work on this spring. Coach Wilson emphasized that to me, that passing it was something he wanted to do. And we emphasized it in the spring overall. We want to be more efficient in the pass game. I thought the quarterbacks got better each day. And the more they understand the concepts and grasps of each concept, it allows them to play a bit faster. But really, it’s the quarterback, running back, o-line working together, they all have to be on the same page. It’s everybody. All 11 guys have to be on the same page. We have to cut things down and want them to truly understand the concepts.
Littrell inherits an interesting, junior-laden receiving corps led by Kofi Hughes (536 receiving yards, 57 percent catch rate, 8.8 yards per target), Jamonne Chester (240 yards, 50 percent catch rate, 5.7 yards per target) and Duwyce Wilson (217 yards, 47 percent catch rate, 6.0 yards per target). Hughes came on strong with Roberson behind center -- he caught 19 of his 35 passes in the last five games, including eight for 147 yards against Ohio State; Hughes and Wilson hinted at solid downfield potential, with 5'7 sophomore Shane Wynn doing well from a possession perspective. This is obviously not the best receiving corps in the country, but with a quarterback who can do what Littrell and Wilson want him to do, this unit is good enough to produce solid numbers. Is Roberson that guy? Or will junior college transfer Cameron Coffman (brother of Chase and Carson) or three-star, pro-style freshman Nathan Sudfeld sneak past him on the depth chart?
Despite pass-heavy tendencies, Littrell and Wilson would certainly be smart to still focus on the run a decent amount. It was an Indiana strength last year (57th in Rushing S&P+, 110th in Passing S&P+), it was a strength of the line last year (50th in Adj. Line Yards, 89th in Adj. Sack Rate), and between Roberson and junior running back Stephen Houston (802 yards, plus-10.7 Adj. POE), the Hoosiers have potential on the ground. Plus, one of their most high-profile signees in the 2012 recruiting class was running back Tevin Coleman, and they return five linemen with starting experience (58 career starts), including solid center Will Matte, though the losses of tackles Justin Pagán and Andrew McDonald (62 career starts) could hurt.
If you are so inclined, you really can begin to talk yourself into the Indiana offense. Good running game, interesting young quarterback, and an offensive coordinator who almost always produces good passing games? I'm listening. Unfortunately for Indiana, the defense still has to walk onto the field on every other possession of the game. (Maybe they should onside kick every time they score?) And the 2011 Indiana defense was absolutely dreadful. In 2011, Indiana became only the third BCS conference defense in the last five years to rank 117th or worse in Def. F/+ (they were 117th, 2011 Washington State was 118th, and 2010 Michigan was 119th).
The Indiana defense ranked 114th in Rushing S&P+, 119th in Passing S&P+, 113th on standard downs, 107th on passing downs, 114th on first down, 108th on second down and 108th on third down. They couldn't generate a pass rush without blitzing (though their blitz was relatively effective), and they didn't go after the ball with any success (they picked off five passes in 2011, fewer than 12 individual FBS defense and eight fewer than N.C. State's David Amerson). Their strengths (78th in Adj. Sack Rate, 84th in Passing Downs Success Rate+, 76th in the red zone) redefined the word "relative." Co-coordinators Doug Mallory (son of former head coach Bill Mallory) and Mike Ekeler just could not figure out any ways to make stops, and with the talent level at hand (six of the top seven returning linemen were two-star recruits, as were two of the top three returning linebackers), it isn't hard to figure out why. This team needed an immediate, forceful infusion of talent, so Wilson went down a predictable road: junior college transfers. He signed five on the defensive side of the ball, including three-star signees Jacarri Alexander (linebacker), David Cooper (linebacker) and Ryan Thompson (defensive back). Throw in some three-star freshmen like end Nick Mangieri and defensive back Antonio Marshall, and you get the impression that Wilson did a pretty good job in improving the talent level in just one recruiting class. Of course, we are still only talking about three-star recruits (and not four- or five-stars), but improvement is improvement.
If the new blood can make an impact, then the pressure could ease off of what were, relatively speaking, Indiana's best defensive players last year. Senior tackles Adam Replogle and Larry Black, Jr., combined for 12.5 tackles for loss and could become one of the Big Ten's best duos if they get any help whatsoever from the end position. Of course, they are going to need to be quite strong, as a linebacker position that wasn't very good last year has last four of its top five players. Jeff Thomas and Leon Beckum were strong near the line of scrimmage (16 tackles for loss) and have departed. Basically, it's sophomore Chase Hoobler, the aforementioned junior college transfers (Alexander and Cooper), and … somebody. Hoobler is the only returnee who made more than 6.5 tackles last year. Obviously losing quite a few players from a poor unit isn't necessarily a big deal, but they still need bodies to fill out the depth chart.
Indiana ranked dead last in the country in big-play prevention versus the pass, and while the pass rush wasn't great, it wasn't dead last. That points to some culpability in the secondary, where the top three cornerbacks return, as do three of the top five safeties (if that's a good thing). Corners Greg Heban and Lawrence Barnett combined for two picks and 12 passes broken up, but let's just say they got lots of opportunities to break passes up -- nobody was scared to throw at them. And the safety position absolutely must improve; though virtually all of the junior college transfers need to produce for Indiana to improve to any marked degree, the most pressure might be on Ryan Walters and Tregg Walters.
The good news about going 1-11 is that it doesn't take much to improve. The goal seems to be around 3-4 wins, and with a non-conference slate of Indiana State, at Massachusetts, Ball State and at Navy, that certainly isn't inconceivable, even if they drop one of those games. So we'll set the bar there.
Kevin Wilson needs something, someone, around which he can build. A huge win,
a five-star quarterback, an unheralded recruit who becomes the next Anthony Thompson. Twenty years ago, Indiana was coming off of its fifth bowl in six years. That is within the realm of possibility, though Indiana needs a jolt that it hasn't received in quite a while. Can it eventually generate a great offense and at least a competent defense? Vice versa? Indiana should be better in 2012, and the offense is at least worth keeping an eye on, but the road to respectability is long when you fall this far, and as Wilson learned last year, there are no shortcuts.
While we’re here, let’s watch some college football videos from SB Nation’s new YouTube channel together: