Indiana Is the Best Surprise of the College Football Season, Even After a Loss

Adam Kramer@kegsneggsNational College Football Lead WriterNovember 22, 2020

Indiana quarterback Michael Penix looks for an open receive against Ohio State during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020, in Columbus, Ohio. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)
Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

So, they lost.

Indiana's Saturday could be summarized in a single sentence. In a sport fixated on results, there is no escaping the final outcome. The Hoosiers were unable to complete what would have amounted to a legendary comeback. Ohio State, along with its Big Ten championship and College Football Playoff aspirations, survived in Columbus.

We could stop there. The final score, a 42-35 thriller, tells a story. But not the whole story.

The story here is not Justin Fields' Heisman possibilities or the Buckeyes' chase for a national championship, which are both still very much alive. There will be days and weeks for that.

The story here is the losing team—the team that will not win a national championship or a Heisman. The story here is Indiana, what could've been and almost was, and how magical this year has been despite the sudden imperfection.

In college football, that is rarely allowed to happen. This is not a sport that supports blemishes. We like a good story, but it has to be on our terms. Indiana, however, showed just how powerful a good story can be.

The most glaring takeaway to emerge in the aftermath of Indiana-Ohio State is that the Hoosiers, nearly a three-touchdown underdog on Saturday, are a team worthy of national praise and admiration.

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Appreciate them. Embrace them. Don't just jump off the bandwagon now that they've lost; give them every ounce of attention, or more, after nearly pulling off an unfathomable upset.

Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

During a chaotic, disjointed 2020 season—a season that has felt in flux since the day it began—Indiana has provided a blueprint and hope to middling college football programs searching for a higher ceiling.

Indiana is not supposed to be 4-1. It is not supposed to bring Ohio State to the brink. The difference in resources and expectations between these two programs is spectacular. This is not a team, historically, that is supposed to be ranked in the Top 10, let alone the Top 25.

It's not an easy blueprint to duplicate, but it can be done. To do so, you need the proper pieces to make it happen.

It starts with the architect, head coach Tom Allen, who has led Indiana since 2016. His rise has not come without struggles: Two five-win seasons paved the way for an eight-win season in 2019.

In 2020, Allen has Indiana at 4-1 with wins over perennial Big Ten powers Penn State and Michigan. Although expectations were mixed heading into the year, Allen had the Hoosiers in the Top 10 of the AP Poll heading into the week, rarified air for his football program.

He has shown emotion and heart along the way, something that poured out after the loss on Saturday in a way that only adds to his charm.

Allen has not done this alone. Quarterback Michael Penix Jr. and wideout Ty Fryfogle have become breakout stars in the Big Ten and beyond.

Against Ohio State, Penix threw for 491 yards, the kind of output you rarely see against the Buckeyes, and five touchdowns. He put up the fourth-most passing yards ever against the Buckeyes.

His favorite target, Fryfogle, has emerged as one of the nation's best wide receivers over the past month. After catching 11 passes for 200 yards against Michigan State the week prior, Fryfogle finished with seven catches, 218 yards and three touchdowns against the Buckeyes.

While Purdue's Rondale Moore, Minnesota's Rashod Bateman and others were hyped plenty heading into the season, no wideout has had a greater impact on his team's performance than Fryfogle.

Despite those pieces, Indiana still found itself in a 35-7 hole early on in the third quarter. One of the great storylines of the season was 27 minutes away from a blowout. In those remaining 27 minutes, the Hoosiers outscored the Buckeyes 28-7. But it still wasn't enough.

So, they lost.

They made Fields look mortal, picking him off three times. They provided tape for Ohio State's future opponents on how to slow one of the nation's most dynamic playmakers.

But that shouldn't be the resounding takeaway, either. This shouldn't be about Ohio State's suddenly questionable defense. This should be about how Indiana, a program that won't have many days like this, nearly pulled it off.

It doesn't have to be all or nothing. There should be a place where we can appreciate the collective efforts and excitement that surround a season, especially one as unexpected as this, even if it's not perfect.

And it doesn't end here. Indiana still has three games remaining, including one against Wisconsin. One of the greatest seasons in the program's history is within reach.

So they lost.

Historically at Indiana, it happens plenty. Only this year, the loss takes on a different meaning.

This blemish is one to be proud of. You can wear this one forever.

The season is one that should be distinguished this year and beyond, and it will. Regardless of what happens in the weeks ahead, the Hoosiers validated all they have done up until this point.

So they lost. So what?