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What counts as success for Indiana in the brutal Big Ten East?

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Tom Allen’s first Hoosiers were good on only one side of the ball, the mirror image of Kevin Wilson’s Hoosiers.

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Indiana Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

Indiana and NC State fans should hang out — they might find they have a lot in common. Their schools both peaked from a basketball standpoint in the 1970s and 1980s. They both eat [insert obvious college town food reference here; I do enjoy BuffaLouie’s in Bloomington]. And they both live in absurd football divisions — the ACC Atlantic for the Wolfpack, the Big Ten East for the Hoosiers.

I’ve made my thoughts on divisions pretty clear by now:

Divisions were created to establish a conference title game 25 years ago, and we keep doing it because ... that’s what we’ve done.

That’s not good enough, not when there’s a much better approach: pods.

Killing divisions and using pods allows you to maintain your most intense conference rivalries as annual series, play everybody within your conference in a short amount of time, customize in whatever way works best for your conference, and establish the most equal possible matchup in your conference title game.

I’m pretty sure this platform would be popular in Bloomington and Raleigh. And Piscataway and College Park (Big Ten East), and Chestnut Hill and Winston-Salem (ACC Atlantic), and Starkville and Oxford (SEC West), and perhaps Berkeley and Corvallis (Pac-12 North). But I digress.

If Indiana had been founded in a town a little bit further to the left of Purdue’s West Lafayette, the Hoosiers would have ended up in the West division, a more manageable locale in which they could have set goals like “maybe threaten for a division title every few years.” Instead, they’re in the East with four teams — Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, and Penn State — that have combined for 20 conference titles (shared or outright) and 34 top-10 finishes in the last 25 years.

After winning either five or six games in four of the last five seasons (with a 2-14 record against the East’s big four in those seasons and a 20-14 record against everyone else), the Hoosiers are trying to simply carve out a niche at seven or eight wins for now. That’s your peak when you’re in a division with four teams projected in 2018’s S&P+ top 12.

Still, that’s something. And the fact that we’re talking about aspirations of any kind tell us that the infrastructure has improved in Bloomington.

Allen’s first year of succeeding Kevin Wilson was neither a profound success nor a grave failure. The Hoosiers ranked a decent 51st in S&P+, beat bad teams (5-1 against teams outside the top 50), and dropped games against better teams.

2017 proved Indiana’s trajectory remains the same without Wilson. The Hoosiers have ranked in the 50s for three straight years, and while that might seem uninspiring, it’s a start — they ranked in the top 60 just once between 1999 and 2012 and have now done so four times in five years.

When might a next step come? Hard to say, but now’s as good a time as any. Perhaps not surprisingly, S&P+ projections — which are pretty conservative as a rule — project IU in the 50s with a likely record around 6-6. But the Hoosiers have two interesting quarterbacks (sophomore Peyton Ramsey and Arizona grad transfer Brandon Dawkins), a reasonably experienced receiving corps, very experienced lines, and a secondary that is likely more stable than last year’s. Outside of the four games against division heavyweights, every game on the schedule is winnable.

Offense

2017 Indiana offensive radar

Indiana’s overall ranking has remained similar over the last three years, but its strengths and weaknesses have pulled off nearly perfect 180-degree flips.

  • Indiana 2015 S&P+: 58th overall, 15th on offense, 108th on defense
  • Indiana 2016 S&P+: 53rd overall, 67th on offense, 31st on defense
  • Indiana 2017 S&P+: 51st overall, 98th on offense, 26th on defense

Now you can see whatever you want to see.

  • Positive spin: IU had a good defense last year and was only two years removed from a good offense! The Hoosiers are not that far away from being awesome!
  • Negative spin: IU’s defense can’t possibly get any better, and without Wilson and 2015’s personnel, the offense isn’t going to magically return. Things are about to fall apart.

The strange part about IU’s 2017 struggles is that the the Hoosiers were solid in most line stats — they were 45th in Adj. Sack Rate, 57th in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line), and 66th in power success rate. Every lineman who started a game returns, including honorable-mention all-conference guard Wes Martin, and IU adds senior Miami transfer Nick Linder, a two-year starter at center.

When you’ve got a solid line (or at least, solid line stats), it should be the building block toward something efficient. Instead ...

2017 Indiana offensive efficiency & explosiveness

... the Hoosiers were nearly the least efficient offense in a mostly inefficient conference. IU ranked 74th in passing success rate and a horrid 128th in rushing success rate. Hoosier rushers never moved backwards but never really went forward either — running backs averaged just 4.5 yards per carry, 3.7 against teams not named Georgia Southern or Rutgers. Leading rusher Morgan Ellison (8.4 per carry vs. GS and RU, 3.6 vs. everybody else) was particularly pronounced.

Ellison and fellow sophomore Cole Gest are back; they were the least inefficient of the backs (“most efficient” doesn’t really apply here), and they’ve got time to figure things out. But we’ll see how much the run game can improve in one offseason.

Penn State v Indiana
Nick Westbrook
Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

The QB could have a lot to say about the run game. Dawkins is a multi-year contributor who lost his job to Khalil Tate at Arizona last season. No shame in that. Over parts of three years, Dawkins threw for 2,414 yards (with a 56 percent completion rate) and rushed for 1,582, and not including sacks he averaged 7.9 yards per carry last season.

Ramsey averaged just 3.9 yards per carry. But over his final four games in 2017, before missing November with injury, he completed 67 percent of his passes.

Coordinator Mike DeBord has had an odd streak. After an up-and-down stint at Tennessee, he had quite a bit to prove.

Regardless of whether Tennessee’s issues were driven more by Jones or DeBord, the reaction of the Vol fanbase to losing DeBord was revealing. Every fan base hates its offensive coordinator, and Tennessee fans hate anybody who doesn’t take them to a national title, but there was real vitriol, and there was, at times, cause for it.

Allen’s first huge hire was more conservative than bold — especially now that DeBord won’t have nearly as many four-star guys — and you might need to be bold to win in Bloomington.

His first IU offense was IU’s worst since 2011. He was dealing with some QB injury issues, but this was not a great start.

Still, he was at Tennessee in 2016 when the mobile Josh Dobbs went nuclear late in his senior season; over Dobbs’ last four games that year, he had 43 non-sack carries for 557 yards, and UT averaged 46 points per game.

If Dawkins can hint at a fraction of that, DeBord could know what to do with him. But Ramsey showed efficiency potential with his arm. I’m interested in where DeBord ends up leaning.

The receiving corps could have something to say about the QB situation, too. Leader Simmie Cobbs Jr. is gone, but senior Luke Timian was a co-No. 1 in terms of receptions, and the explosive Nick Westbrook returns after missing 2017 with injury. If DeBord and Allen figure that passes to Timian and Westbrook are the most likely path to success, then that will probably give Ramsey the inside track.

I’d be surprised if IU’s offense didn’t improve.

Arizona v Arizona State
Brandon Dawkins
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Defense

2017 Indiana defensive radar

Do not fall behind schedule against Indiana. It won’t work out well for you. The Hoosiers ranked a solid 31st in Standard Downs S&P+ but surged to ninth in Passing Downs S&P+, with a best-in-FBS 15 percent passing-downs sack rate.

Allen knows how to ratchet up the pressure, and he does it with variety — eight different Hoosiers recorded at least two sacks last year, and none had more than six. Losing ends Greg Gooch and Robert McCray III (combined: 14 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks) hurts, but IU still boasts Allen Stallings IV and Nile Sykes, who recorded five sacks in 2016 before missing last year with injury. Plus, five of six tackles, including senior Jacob Robinson (seven TFLs, four sacks), are back, and depth could be furthered by the addition of Syracuse grad transfer Kayton Samuels.

NCAA Football: Georgia Southern at Indiana
Jacob Robinson (91)
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Indiana had its first top-30 Def. S&P+ defense since 1993 despite missing Sykes and star nickel back Marcelino Ball. Their returns to health will help absorb other losses. Ball had 4.5 TFLs and 10 passes defensed in 2016 and will step in to replace departing Tony Fields. With senior safety Jonathan Crawford and three of four cornerbacks returning, the secondary should be as good as it was last year, if the nickel is disruptive.

So that leaves linebacker, easily the most questionable unit. Tegray Scales and Chris Covington were dynamite last season, combining for 24.5 TFLs and nine sacks; they each took part in at least 13 run stuffs, but they’re gone. Senior Dameon Willis Jr. returns after making 21 tackles, but he didn’t play any sort of disruptive role. After Willis are mostly unknowns.

The front and back should be awesome, and I’m assuming similar levels of passing-downs prowess. But Scales and Covington were instrumental in forcing those passing downs.

NCAA Football: Maryland at Indiana
Marcelino Ball (42)
Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

The other reason IU put together a decent team rating despite bad offense. The Hoosiers ranked 11th in Special Teams S&P+, thanks to place-kicker Griffin Oakes (16-for-17 on FGs) and punter Haydon Whitehead (11th in punt efficiency).

Only Whitehead returns, and if IU’s offense improves a bit, he’ll be used a bit less. Oakes was also in charge of kickoffs, and kick returner Devonte Williams is gone. Punt returner J-Shun Harris II could be back after approximately 28 knee injuries, er approbut don’t expect as much help from this unit this fall.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep at Florida International 120 12.5 77%
8-Sep Virginia 73 5.5 62%
15-Sep Ball State 117 16.6 83%
22-Sep Michigan State 11 -13.3 22%
29-Sep at Rutgers 84 2.8 56%
6-Oct at Ohio State 1 -27.3 6%
13-Oct Iowa 36 -2.5 44%
20-Oct Penn State 8 -15.5 19%
26-Oct at Minnesota 67 -1.1 47%
10-Nov Maryland 80 6.4 64%
17-Nov at Michigan 10 -18.6 14%
24-Nov Purdue 54 1.5 53%
Projected S&P+ Rk 58
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 84 / 42
Projected wins 5.5
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 4.3 (48)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 56 / 51
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -7 / -2.2
2017 TO Luck/Game -2.0
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 51% (60%, 41%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 5.8 (-0.8)

Man, I don’t know.

With two solid QBs, a couple of solid WRs, a good offensive line, and a defense that should still play at a top-40 level, I could see Indiana turning into a genuinely solid, balanced team, one capable of going 8-4 and scaring the hell out of the East’s big four. I’m sure that’s what the more optimistic wing of IU fans sees.

It’s not hard to see an Indiana that still stinks at running the football, can’t decide between QBs, struggles without Cobbs, can’t force nearly as many passing downs without its star linebackers, and can’t bail itself out with special teams anymore. That team probably goes 4-8.

In such a hard division, the ceiling is always going to be lower than it should be for Indiana, but considering the Hoosiers’ recent level, expectations are likely rising. Now would be a very good year for Allen to overachieve.

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