Saturday Tradition’s annual Crystal Ball series concludes its look at the B1G East with Indiana. Then we will predict every game for every B1G West team. Formerly: Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan, Michigan State, Maryland, Rutgers
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Who are the Hoosiers?
For a fleeting moment, Tom Allen seemed to have the Indiana football program completely unrecognizable from his lovable loser tradition. Admittedly, in classic UI football fashion, this year was 2020 and few fans were able to witness the magical season in person.
But that was okay, because it felt like everything the Hoosiers bottled up from when Michael Penix Jr. stretched the ball to the pylon to beat Penn State in overtime could stand.
Alas, Indiana’s most exciting football season since perhaps 1967 was followed by its most disappointing. The Hoosiers followed their Outback Bowl appearance with a 2-10 season and no Big Ten wins.
Penix was no longer the same player after yet another knee injury, and injured himself again on top of that. Once the most popular quarterback on the program since Antwaan Randle El, his move to Washington this offseason was met with a shrug. Both parties knew they needed something new.
Meanwhile, Penix replacements were busts.
Jack Tuttle, Donaven McCulley and Grant Gremel combined for 5 touchdowns and 8 interceptions over 7 games. The versatile McCulley has been recast as a wide receiver, and Indiana is pinning its hopes on Missouri transfer Connor Bazelak to revitalize a passing offense that ranked 128th nationally in Yards Per Attempt.
Is Connor Bazelak up to the task?
Few Big Ten transfers are likely to have more impact on their team’s success than Bazelak.
If he’s the real deal, Indiana will go bowling for the third time in 4 years. If he’s an average quarterback, the Hoosiers will definitely improve on the 2-10 disaster, but maybe not enough to get 6 wins. And if Bazelak struggles…well, that’s a grim scenario to consider.
Flashes of all 3 results were on display during his 2 seasons as a starter at Mizzou, where he completed 66% of his passes for 23 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. Bazelak was phenomenal against LSU in 2020, completing 29 of 34 passes for 406 yards and 4 touchdowns. In his last start for Missouri, Bazelak went 10 of 26 for 65 yards and an interception against Arkansas.
Bazelak will attempt to make it work with an all-new receiving corps. Indiana’s top 3 passers from last season – Ty Fryfogle, tight end Peyton Hendershot and Miles Marshall – are all gone now. DJ Matthews is back after a season-ending injury ended his 2021 early, but the rest of the squad are unproven.
Stars – or at least reliable options – have to emerge if we are to see the best version of Bazelak.
The defense is ready for a rebound
Much of Indiana’s failure in 2021 was correctly attributed to an offense that averaged just 17.3 points per game to finish 123rd nationally. This problem was solved by the hiring of former UMass head coach Walt Bell.
But plenty of fouls could also be found in a defense that has gone from 20.3 points per game in 2020 to 33.3 per game in 2021. The defense will also have a new leader in Chad Wilt, who was most recently the coach of the Minnesota defensive line.
Despite the loss of one of the best linebackers in program history to Micah McFadden, all signs point to a resurgence for the defense as a whole.
There are 7 returning starters, including 2020 All-America cornerback Tiawan Mullen. The Hoosiers were 2-2 when Mullen started a game, and winless when he was unable to do so with an ankle injury. Fellow senior Devon “Monster” Matthews also brings a veteran touch to safety.
There’s reason to believe that this defense will be much closer to one that had 20 takeaways in an 8-game 2020 schedule than one that forced just 9 in a full 12-game 2021 season.
Week 1: vs. Illinois (W)
For the third consecutive year, Indiana opens the season with a conference game. The last 2 both served as precursors to things to come – the 36-35 overtime win over Penn State in 2020 and the interception-riddled 34-6 loss to Iowa in 21. Bazelak will look like the real deal and will get 22 off to a good start.
Week 2: against Idaho (W)
The Vandals have the most underrated nickname in Division I. It’s completely badass. The Vandals, however, are just plain bad. They have had 3 consecutive losing seasons since they descended to FCS level. It will be a laugh.
Week 3: vs. Western Kentucky (W)
The Hilltoppers had a tough home test last season, but this one is in Bloomington and quarterback Bailey Zappe is in NFL training camp. Indiana goes 3-0.
Week 4: in Cincinnati (W)
I believe Indiana would have beaten the Bearcats last year if McFadden hadn’t been ejected for targeting. It was a definite turning point in a tight game. With 9 players from this Cincinnati team now in the NFL, Indiana will pull off the upset at Nippert Stadium.
Week 5: in Nebraska (W)
Back-to-back games on the road, and Nebraska are coming off a bye week. Sounds like a recipe for a loss. But get this – Scott Frost literally never won a game the week after a bye in Nebraska. The Hoosiers continue that tradition and go 5-0.
Week 6: vs. Michigan (L)
Fox’s Big Noon Kickoff will be in Bloomington for this undefeated match. At that point, the Hoosiers could even crack the Top 25. Alas, at halftime it will be clear that the Wolverines are the only team to leave this game unbeaten.
Week 7: against Maryland (L)
This Indiana team isn’t cut out for a shootout, which Maryland’s powerful offense can force.
Week 8: at Rutgers (L)
This game provided one of the iconic moments of the 2021 college football season.
Indiana fans go shirtless.pic.twitter.com/uJAmUP2xWu
— 𝐓𝐡𝐞 𝐒𝐩𝐨𝐫𝐭𝐢𝐧𝐠 𝐍𝐞𝐰𝐬 (@sportingnews) November 13, 2021
It will be much tighter than last year’s 38-3 humiliation, but the Scarlet Knights will still take the home win.
Week 9: goodbye
Week 10: vs. Penn State (L)
Sixth-year man Sean Clifford leads the Nittany Lions to a comeback victory in a game that captures the spirit of their wild 2020 overtime classic.
Week 11: at Ohio State (L)
Buckeyes offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson will stick the knife in if he gets the chance — and he almost certainly will.
Week 12: at Michigan State (L)
The Hoosiers will drive late for the win when someone on Michigan State’s defense — Jacob Slade? Cal Haladay? Xavier Henderson? – steps forward for a decisive blow or decisive save.
Week 13: against Purdue (L)
After a 5-0 start, Indiana must win the Old Oaken Bucket in order to earn a spot in the bowl. And it looks like the Hoosiers are going to pull it off – until Aidan O’Connell ends his career at Purdue with a game-winning drive in the final 4 minutes.
2022 projection: 5-7 (2-7), 7th in B1G East
There is only one fitting outcome after Indiana’s most exciting football season in decades was followed by Indiana’s most disappointing football season in decades: football season of Indiana the most “Indiana football” in decades.
And the perfect formula for the most Indiana football season would be to start 5-0 before losing to miss a bowl bid. And for the majority of those losses in games that come down to 2-3 plays or possessions that matter.
Of course, the twist on top is that the Hoosiers would be one of the most improved teams in college football, but would still produce a disappointing result. It’s the curse of Indiana football.
There is certainly a chance that Crystal Ball is too focused on the past to see the future clearly. Indiana will flirt with bowl eligibility this season and maybe even get there. But Bazelak and a group of unproven receivers will have to play for that to happen.