After winning eight games last season, what will define a successful season for Indiana?
Tom Allen needed just three seasons to put his stamp on Indiana football. Pardon the Lemony Snicket reference, but the Hoosiers ended a series of unfortunate streaks during the 2019 season, hoping to turn the page to a new chapter in Bloomington.
Indiana finished last year with eight wins, hitting that victory total for the first time since 1993. After starting the season 7-2, the Hoosiers ended a 25-year absence from the Associated Press poll. Allen led IU to a win over Purdue in the Old Oaken Bucket game and a bowl berth for the first time in his three-year run as head coach.
No, the season didn’t end the way Allen or the team had hoped. Indiana lost three of the final four contests and blew a two-score lead to Tennessee in the Gator Bowl which halted the opportunity of a nine-win season. Given all the program’s shortcomings on the gridiron, though, 2019 qualifies as an historic year for IU football.
But the success from 2019 can be washed away pretty quickly. The question for Allen now becomes whether or not Indiana can build off the momentum it gained last fall and develop consistency in Bloomington. That’s something that has rarely existed in Indiana’s inglorious history on the field.
So, what would a successful season look like for the Hoosiers in 2020? There are really three possible answers to that question.
Back-to-back winning seasons
It’s nearly inconceivable to think that the last time Indiana pieced together back-to-back winning seasons was in 1993 and 1994 under Bill Mallory. While the program hit the six-win mark in consecutive seasons under Kevin Wilson in 2015 and 2016, the Hoosiers lost both bowl games and ended with a 6-7 record both years.
At the very least, IU should hit seven wins in 2020.
Sixteen starters from Indiana’s 2019 squad will be returning, the third-most in the B1G behind Northwestern and Purdue (17 each). That includes quarterback Michael Penix Jr., wide receiver Whop Philyor and running back Stevie Scott III. Combine that with a maturing and improving offensive line, and the Hoosiers’ offense should just as potent as a year ago, even without Kalen DeBoer calling the shots.
Defensively, Indiana has nine starters returning.
The Hoosiers will likely be favorites in six of their first seven games this fall. After traveling to Wisconsin in the season opener, Indiana will play Western Kentucky, Ball State and UConn in non-conference contests before diving back into B1G matchups. The next three conference opponents will be Maryland, Rutgers and Michigan State.
Starting 6-1 — maybe even 7-0 with an upset over Wisconsin — is a very realistic goal. The Hoosiers could lock up bowl eligibility before Halloween and possibly return to the Associated Press poll at some point early in the year.
Locking down a bowl berth so early would allow IU to play with house money in the final five games, a brutal stretch to close the year. IU will take on Penn State, Ohio State, Illinois, Michigan and Purdue on consecutive Saturdays to end the season. But if Allen and the Hoosiers have nothing to lose during the final month, it would create the perfect opportunity for a major upset.
Take down a “big boy” program
Speaking of upsets, a huge step for the Hoosiers in 2020 would be to finally end one of those long losing streaks to some of the B1G’s premier programs. Ronald Reagan was in office the last time Indiana defeated Ohio State (1988) or Michigan (1987). The last victory over Wisconsin was a little more recent, but was still two decades ago (2002).
Indiana has just one victory over Penn State in 23 tries, with that win coming in 2013.
There’s a chance IU could hit the nine-win mark in 2020 without beating any of those four teams mentioned. Indiana hasn’t won that many games since the 1967 season. While creeping closer to 10 wins would be another significant accomplishment, notching an upset victory over a blueblood program would serve as proof that Indiana isn’t the doormat to the B1G elite like it has been for so long.
Ending losing streaks that have extended longer than the Thirty Years’ War would be a nice feather in the cap for Allen and the IU program.
Win a bowl game
“Finish” was the term that Indiana used so fervently during the 2019 season. The team wanted to start finishing drives, halves, games and seasons more effectively. For most of the season, that motto worked.
But the Hoosiers failed to finish in their bowl game. The goal of being the first IU team to record a postseason victory since 1991 was not achieved, falling 23-22 to Tennessee in the Gator Bowl after blowing a 22-9 lead in the fourth quarter.
Nobody on Indiana’s roster was alive the last time the Hoosiers won a bowl game. And while it might seem like a small accomplishment for a lot of other programs, holding a bowl trophy at the end of the year would be monumental for Allen’s program.
Indiana has had enough trouble just reaching the postseason. Just playing in a bowl game in back-to-back seasons is certainly an accomplishment itself. But this is a program no longer satisfied with simply playing a 13th game.
Winning that bowl game has to be a priority for the Hoosiers again this fall.