Editor’s note: Saturday Tradition’s annual Crystal Ball series continues today with Indiana. We’ll stay with the B1G East all week. Next week, we’ll predict every game for every B1G West team. Up next: Michigan.

My aunt went to Indiana University during the Isiah Thomas and Bob Knight era, when the men’s basketball team was one of the nation’s best, and the football team, well, was not. In 1981, the Hoosiers won a national title in basketball. The football team went 3-8. Just 3 years later, it went 0-11.

Imagine if you could tell Indiana fans that 40 years later, their football team would be one of the Big Ten’s best and that the basketball team is on the longest NCAA Tournament drought (4 years) since Knight took over in 1971.

That, though, is the reality. The football Hoosiers are legit.

There are a lot of college football programs that would drop their head coach in a second if they could get Tom Allen to come to their school. He’s turned Indiana into a winner, and he’s done it in an endearing way. His slogan, LEO (love everyone), is heartwarming. His players seem to genuinely love him. Knock on wood, there hasn’t been a hint of scandal (something Indiana fans have dealt with in basketball and football in the last 15 years). There are only good vibes right now if you’re a Hoosiers fan.

While the football team did have some nice seasons under Bill Mallory later in the 80s, the program went 25 years without even appearing in a Top 25. Now, it will start the season there for the first time since 1969. The goal will be to end it there for the second straight year, and to do much more than that.

But to do that, Michael Penix Jr. needs to stay healthy

The Indiana quarterback has been terrific — when he’s on the field. That’s been his only real issue. He has suffered season-ending injuries 3 years in a row. In 2018 and 2020, it was a torn ACL. In 2019, it was a clavicle injury. If the best ability is availability, Penix has fallen short in that department.

But that’s about the only thing you can fault Penix for. Since beating out Peyton Ramsey in 2019, he has thrown for 24 touchdowns and 8 interceptions in 12 games. His performances in big moments (late vs. Penn State, at Ohio State last year) have solidified him as one of college football’s best quarterbacks. Indiana’s offensive line was arguably the worst in the Big Ten, yet Penix still found a way to deliver under pressure and avoid sacks.

Indiana is at the point where it can win games with a backup QB; it did so in 2019 with Ramsey and in 2020 with Jack Tuttle. But to win big, Penix is the guy.

Big additions on defense

Indiana is obviously excited about its 2 SEC transfers at defensive end (Ryder Anderson from Ole Miss and Jaren Handy from Auburn), but the biggest addition to a very good defense could be a player that fans know well: Marcelino McCrary-Ball.

The defensive back missed all of 2020 after suffering a torn ACL in the preseason. He told The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman that he is every bit as explosive as he was before the injury, and he will play this season at 10-15 pounds lighter than before the injury. He is on Feldman’s Freaks List for the third time in his career for his freakish strength and athletic ability.

The Hoosiers led the country with over 2 interceptions per game and were 14th nationally with over 3 sacks per game. Adding Ball to an already star-studded unit that includes cornerback Tiawan Mullen and linebacker Micah McFadden puts the Hoosiers in position to repeat as one of the conference’s top defenses.

So, is the perception changing?

While the short-term results are great, the best way to create long-lasting success is through recruiting. The more depth a program can accumulate, the better it will survive the unpredictable elements of college football, like injuries (Penix and Ball) and coaches leaving (the Hoosiers have lost a coordinator in back-to-back seasons).

While Indiana had the No. 12 class in 2021, it has the No. 6 class in 2022 (with the 5th-best average player rating). The Hoosiers already have 4 4-star commits in 2022 (plus 2 high 3-stars), which is double what they had in 2021 and quadruple the 2020 output.

Recruiting rankings aren’t the end-all (Wisconsin, Iowa and Northwestern are rarely recruiting powerhouses, yet they do just fine), but it doesn’t hurt. It generates positive momentum and gives you some margin for error.

Game-by-game predictions

Week 1: at Iowa (L)

After saying all of those great things about Indiana, do I really have the Hoosiers dropping their first game? Yeah, I do. As you’ll see, Indiana’s early-season schedule is tough. Iowa led the country last year in yards per play allowed, and as usual, it should field one of the B1G’s — if not the entire country’s — best defenses. Playing at Kinnick Stadium with fans, this is not the best way to ease into a season. Penix is expected to be at full strength, but it will be his first game after his latest torn ACL. I think Iowa is the safe pick here, though if Indiana is able to win this one on the road, the hype train will really take off.

Week 2: vs. Idaho (W)

Idaho is now an FCS program after competing in FBS from 1996-2017. That meant the Vandals played a spring season due to COVID, and they went just 2-4. Indiana should have no problem in the home opener.

Week 3: vs. Cincinnati (L)

What a year to be playing against Cincinnati. The Bearcats are going to start the season in the top 10 after finishing last season ranked No. 8. They have legitimate College Football Playoff aspirations as the clear best team in the AAC and non-conference games against the Hoosiers and Notre Dame. They have one of the best defenses in the country, with a QB (Desmond Ridder) who can make just as many plays as Penix. I think the Hoosiers lose a close one.

Week 4: at Western Kentucky (W)

A lot has changed since these programs last met in 2015. Then, the Hilltoppers looked like they were on their way to being the next great Group of 5 program under Jeff Brohm, as they went 23-5 in a 2-year span. But they have finished under .500 in 3 of the 4 years since Brohm left. Indiana, as mentioned above, is on the rise. Even though this one is on the road, the Hoosiers should be able to avoid the upset bug.

Week 5: at Penn State (L)

The last time Indiana played at Penn State was the game that I really started to take Indiana seriously as a legitimate program. In that game in 2019, the Hoosiers lost to No. 9 Penn State 34-27, but it showed that not only could they beat up on Rutgers and Maryland, but they could play with the big boys as well. That led to a breakthrough in 2020, jump started by that dramatic win in the season opener over the Nittany Lions. In this one, though, I think Penn State will be out for revenge. The Nittany Lions outgained the Hoosiers 488-211, yet somehow lost. I don’t think that will be the case in 2021.

Week 6: Bye

Week 7: vs. Michigan State (W)

I think the bye week will be a great time for Indiana to reset and refocus. This program is getting a lot of attention this year, and I could see it as being a time when it gets back to some of the traits that got it here and embraces that underdog mentality. Of course, Indiana won’t be an underdog against Michigan State, but it will take on that identity the rest of the season, starting with this game and into the showdown with Ohio State.

Week 8: vs. Ohio State (W)

I think Ohio State is going to lose a Big Ten game this season, so why not against Indiana? The Hoosiers have as good of a shot as anyone to beat the Buckeyes. Penix clearly loves the big stage; he thrived against Ohio State and Penn State last season with nearly 500 yards against the Buckeyes and that fantastic finish vs. the Nittany Lions. Penix could pick apart the Buckeyes again with Ty Fryfogle back and Florida State transfer D.J. Matthews expected to have a big season.

Allen has built this program up big time. He is getting SEC-caliber players from Florida, and that’s what you need to play with the big boys. The defense is athletic and is capable of getting enough stops to win.

Week 9: at Maryland (W)

There will be no hangover after the monumental win against Ohio State, though this is a trap game. Expectations are high for Taulia Tagovailoa, and the Hoosiers didn’t get to see the real version of him after he and the Terrapins had 3 weeks off due to a COVID outbreak. This one will be close, but Indiana’s propensity for forcing turnovers will be the difference.

Week 10: at Michigan (W)

Once Indiana handled Michigan last year, it was clear these programs were heading in different directions. I think that will continue in 2021. Indiana is not a team you want to have QB issues against, and with Michigan facing some questions at that position, I think the Hoosiers are the pick at this point.

Week 11: vs. Rutgers (W)

Indiana’s offense got off to a slow start last year against Rutgers, but the benefit of having a great defense is that it keeps you in games on an off day (or half) and doesn’t add extra pressure to a struggling unit. Rutgers defense should be solid, so Indiana’s defense may once again have to lead it to a win.

Week 12: vs. Minnesota (W)

Indiana should be able to put up some points on Minnesota, which fielded one of the conference’s worst defenses in 2020. And this matchup will really challenge Indiana’s run defense. But at home, Indiana has the edge here.

Week 13: at Purdue (W)

Last year’s Old Oaken Bucket game was canceled, marking the first time these programs haven’t played since 1919. I think the Hoosiers make up for lost time, though it’ll be closer than you’d expect, as rivalry games typically are.

2021 projection: 9-3, 2nd in B1G East

This is what you come here for, some hot takes, right? Indiana is going to start 2-3 but finish on a 7-game winning streak (including beating Ohio State)?! Yeah, that’s what I’m telling you.

I don’t think that sort of turnaround is plausible at a lot of places (looking at you, Penn State), but I do think it’s possible for Indiana. For one, Allen is unrelentingly positive. He’s gotten compared to the coach in every sportswriter’s favorite show, Ted Lasso.

But also, look at the schedule; it’s insanely front-loaded and gets much easier in the second half. In the Hoosiers’ last 5 games, they won’t face anyone ranked in the preseason Top 25. Maybe Michigan will be ranked by then, but you know that’s far from a guarantee after last year’s disastrous season.

The real question will be whether this is enough to finish in the top 12 and make a New Year’s Six Bowl, of which the Hoosiers were snubbed last season. I tend to think it won’t be enough, but we’ll see.

Regardless, a season like this would be an indisputable success; finishing second in the B1G East for a second straight season, beating Ohio State and finishing in the Top 25 for a second straight season (after not doing that since 1988!) would be great.

This is an opportunity to prove 2020 wasn’t a fluke, and the Hoosiers are set up well to do exactly that.