In 2005, when Indiana University hired Terry Hoeppner to lead their football program, I really thought the Hoosiers had finally turned the page.
Indiana has been the doormat of the Big Ten since they joined the conference in 1899.
To fully put their inadequacies into perspective, consider that in over 100 years of play, they have been conference champions only twice. They have appeared in the final AP poll five times and have been to exactly nine bowls.
That can fairly be described as awful.
However, having seen Hoeppner coach at Miami (Ohio), I believed in his talents. Just as importantly, I believed he wanted to be at Indiana.
Therefore, if he did achieve success as a Hoosier, I believed he would stick with the program instead of bolting for Notre Dame or Florida or whatever bigger name might be hiring that year.
Tragically, it didn't work out that way as Terry Hoeppner died on June 19, 2007, due to complications from brain cancer.
His friend and offensive coordinator Bill Lynch took over the team and, the season following Hoeppner's death saw Lynch lead the Hoosiers to a bowl game for the first time in 14 years.
In Hoeppner's two years as coach, the Hoosiers consistently improved and built momentum from year to year. This obviously continued into Lynch's first year coaching, but it ended there.
In 2008, Indiana went 3-9 and 1-7 in conference. In 2009, they went 4-8 with a 1-7 conference record.
However, it should be noted that 2009 could easily have been 7-4, as they lost a number of close games.
They lost to Michigan by three, with a very questionable call ending Indiana's last drive. They fell to Northwestern by one.
They lost to Iowa by 18, but the game was much closer than it appears, and again, a questionable call cost them dearly. Finally, they also lost to Wisconsin by three, though that game wasn't as close as it appears.
Heading into 2010, all indications are that if Bill Lynch is to keep his job, he will have to have a successful year. For Indiana, success means six wins and a bowl bid.
Admittedly, it's not looking good.
On offense—Coach Lynch's specialty—things look fairly solid. The only key losses are left tackle Rodger Saffold and right guard Pete Saxon.
Saffold, who was drafted in the second round by the St. Louis Rams, is a major loss, but in college football, if one position is all a team has to worry about, then that team is in good shape.
Other than Saffold and Saxon, everybody returns. That includes senior QB Ben Chappell, and sophomore RB Darius Willis. Indiana also arguably boasts one of the best groups of receivers in the Big Ten, including juniors Tandon Doss and Damarlo Belcher.
Doss and Belcher return 77 and 61 receptions, respectively. Backing them up will be seniors Terrance Turner (46 receptions) and Mitchell Evans (33 receptions). In short, Chappell will have his pick of experienced and talented receiving targets.
Last season, Indiana ranked ninth in scoring in the Big Ten with 23.5 points per game.
It is also worth noting that within conference play , Indiana was sixth in scoring with 24.4 points per game. This is the more telling number as Indiana did play all of the Big Ten's best defenses—OSU, Iowa, PSU, Wisconsin, and NU—and they put up at least 20 points on all of them, except for OSU.
That tells you that Indiana—at least on offense—improved as the season went on. In short, expect that offense to keep improving into 2010.
The two big problems for Indiana's offense last year was their red-zone scoring—ninth in the Big Ten at 73.3 percent—and untimely turnovers.
Ben Chappell threw 15 interceptions last season. Despite that, Indiana was second in conference in turnover margin at +.75 per game. More on that later, but it comes down to the following: Indiana has all the offensive tools it needs to be successful.
They absolutely need Chappell to take better care of the football, and they need to take advantage of opportunities when they present themselves.
Furthermore, Indiana ranked ninth in the Big Ten in time of possession, holding the ball 28:35 per game.
All of these numbers need to improve, because Indiana is a team that will live and die by their offense. The reason for this is...
Indiana loses both their defensive ends, two starting linebackers as well as their top reserve linebacker, a cornerback, and both safeties.
More than just the quantity of their graduations is the quality.
To begin with, at defensive end, Jammie Kirlew was a four-year starter and Greg Middleton started three years. Both were very experienced, very productive, and very underrated. They will be sorely missed.
Meanwhile, at linebacker Will Patterson was a three-year starter while Matt Mayberry was a two-year starter and the team's leading tackler for both 2008 and 2009.
By Big Ten standards, neither was a great linebacker, but with Kirlew and Middleton gone, whoever takes their places will have blockers all over them. Expect a lot of teams to run right at them, and more often than not, said teams will be successful.
Further complicating Indiana's defensive woes, safeties Austin Thomas and Nick Polk are gone. Both were three-year starters and, like the Hoosiers' ends, were sorely underrated.
Teams will not only run at Indiana's new linebackers, but they will look to test their new safeties, most probably with a lot of play actions. New defensive ends, two new linebackers, and new safeties is a surefire recipe for big plays.
For this reason, it will be up to the offense to make sure the defense is well-rested, and not put in dangerous positions.
Again, that means the Hoosiers need to improve their time of possession and avoid untimely turnovers.
Last season, Indiana was 10th in the Big Ten in scoring defense. That number will not improve in 2010.
Indiana starts the season against FCS opponent Towson University. They will win that game. They then get an untimely bye—untimely because they'll probably want that bye later in the year—after which they travel to Western Kentucky.
By the way, if you are a BCS team and you have a game at Western Kentucky, that is not a good sign.
Nevertheless, Indiana should put up 40 points on the Hilltoppers and should win that game.
After that they come back home and play Akron, who at 3-9 last season was awful, but was also young. Indiana has to win that game, and they should.
Akron is followed by division play and all of their toughest games come in two clusters: Michigan, at Ohio State, Arkansas St, at Illinois, Northwestern, Iowa, at Wisconsin, Penn State (at FedEx Field in Maryland), and at Purdue.
I don't see the Hoosiers having a chance against OSU, Iowa, Wisconsin, or PSU. The Buckeyes, Badgers, and Nits will simply run on them all day, and Iowa will force the Hoosiers inexperienced safeties into the box and play-action them to death.
I also think their game against Michigan will be an offensive slugfest. Whichever team takes care of the football will win. My money is on the Wolverines.
They should beat Arkansas State.
That leaves at Illinois, Northwestern, and at Purdue as the swing games. If they win their four out-of-conference games, they will need two of these games to get to six wins and save Bill Lynch's job.
To begin with, there is the Phil Steele model for turnover margin, and it doesn't bode well for Indiana. This makes perfect sense considering the playmakers the Hoosiers lost on defense in 2009.
I expect IU to cut down on offensive turnovers in '10. I also expect them to cause considerably fewer turnovers.
And speaking of those defensive playmakers, Kirlew and Polk, to name two players, were huge leaders for this football team. Somebody has to pick up the slack in that respect on the defense.
Finally, the momentum that Terry Hoeppner brought to this football team is long gone. Most of the players currently starting for the Hoosiers were redshirt freshmen and sophomores when Hoeppner passed. Bill Lynch has got to find a way to motivate this team on his own.
He has yet to find that magic formula.
Worst Case Scenario
The defense is as bad as expected. Moreover, the Hoosiers defensive woes are complicated by turnovers, bad field position, and an offense that doesn't spend enough time on the field.
Chappell continues to struggle with ball control and doesn't take advantage of his talented receivers, thereby leaving the Hoosiers' potentially good offense as middling.
Indiana loses one of their out-of-conference games and gets swept in conference.
Final Record: 3-9
Best Case Scenario
Ben Chappell turns in a career performance in his senior year and the Hoosier offense is one of the top five offenses in the conference.
Just as importantly, they take care of the ball, have long, time-consuming drives, and keep the defense well-rested.
Meanwhile, the defense, while it isn't good, is good enough. They do what they have to do to pull out the wins they need.
Indiana sweeps the OOC slate and wins @Ill, NU, and @Purdue to close out the season.
This gives them seven wins and a bowl bid.
They wind up as the Big Ten's representative in the debut of the Dallas Football Classic where they play a Conference USA team or a lesser-tier team from the Big 12.
They win and Bill Lynch gets a contract extension.
I previously predicted that Illinois will be shell-shocked when Indiana—after a relatively "easy" game against Arkansas State—pulls into town and the Hoosiers will escape Champaign with a win.
However, I think the Hoosiers will lose to Northwestern, who won't be good when the 2010 season begins, but who characteristically improve.
That will bring it down to the annual Old Oaken Bucket game against interstate rival Purdue. Both teams could be bringing five wins into this game and thus playing for a bowl berth. I think Purdue will get the win.
Final Record: 5-7. Bill Lynch will be the third Big Ten firing for 2010.