State of euphoria: A college football season in Indiana unlike any other
There’s a saying that folks in Indiana love to throw out around this time every year.
“In 49 other states, it’s just basketball. But this is Indiana,” they’ll say as the college season tips off and the high school season is just around the corner. After living in the state for 4 1/2 years and spending 4 years of college in Indiana, I understand that it isn’t just talk. The state lives and breathes hoops, with numerous high school gyms that are more impressive than many gyms at non-Power 5 colleges. The high school state championship football games always feel a little overshadowed by the start of high school hoops.
It’s a similar landscape with college sports, too. By November, Indiana and Purdue fans are usually counting down the days to basketball season and only following the football teams as time allows. Sometimes even the Old Oaken Bucket game — the annual meeting to close the regular season between Indiana and Purdue — is upstaged by a non-conference basketball game.
That’s why this season is shaping up to be incredibly special. Indiana, Purdue and Notre Dame are a combined 12-0, with the Irish (7-0) at No. 2 in the most recent AP poll, Indiana (3-0) at No. 7 and Purdue (2-0) receiving votes. The Irish, of course, expect to be in this position as they have only gone an entire season being unranked 3 times since 1964. But for Indiana, which before last season hadn’t been ranked since 1994, and Purdue, which hasn’t been ranked since 2007, it’s uncommon to be in this position. The Big Ten’s delayed start obviously has something to do with it, but Indiana and Purdue both have realistic aspirations of continuing their winning ways well into November.
There are 24 undefeated FBS teams right now, and granted, 11 of those are just 1-0 (the 4 from the Pac 12, the 6 from the MAC and Wisconsin). Of the 13 unbeatens that have played more than 1 game, Indiana is the only state that is home to 3 of them.
If Purdue beats No. 23 Northwestern on Saturday, it’s likely that the Boilermakers will crack the Top 25 and mark the first time that Notre Dame, Indiana and Purdue are ranked in same AP poll since Sept. 22, 1969. That week, Notre Dame was No. 9, Indiana was No. 10 and Purdue was No. 16.
Indiana and Purdue are usually afterthoughts in a conference with 3 teams (Michigan, Penn State and Ohio State) that more than double their average attendance. Indiana has already beaten 2 of those teams, and the Hoosiers get a chance at Ohio State in 2 weeks in a game that will likely decide the East. Maybe the near-empty stadiums of 2020 help neutralize the advantage some of those schools normally have against visiting teams, but the situation also may hurt Indiana and Purdue this season, as there’s no doubt those fan bases would be fired up to support their best teams in years.
The state has a storied hoops history — just watch Hoosiers if you’re not familiar — but most acknowledge a small shift began when the Colts drafted Peyton Manning in 1998. It will be interesting to see whether 20 years from now, this college football season is viewed in a similar way.
How much will a season like this impact recruiting? Perhaps substantially. Indiana is no hotbed for high school football like Ohio, and it typically produces only a few blue-chip recruits per year — and for years, they rarely have gone to Purdue or Indiana. From 2014-2018, the state had 19 4-star or 5-star recruits, and only 1 went to Purdue or Indiana. There was a bit of a shift in 2019, though, as 5 of the 6 blue-chip recruits went to either Purdue or Indiana. It’s already paying off for the Boilermakers, as David Bell and George Karlaftis are arguably Purdue’s 2 best players. Rondale Moore, who grew up in Indiana but went to high school just across the Ohio River in Louisville, is a likely 1st round NFL Draft pick. They can be an example to the rest of the state. Stay home, and it’ll pay off.
Indiana, meanwhile, has plucked overlooked players from Florida and made them stars, such as Michael Penix Jr., Tiawan Mullen and Whop Philyor. This season sends a message to recruits in football-crazed states like Florida that you can come to Big Ten country, go to a basketball school and still be relevant nationally.
The most exciting thing for Indiana and Purdue is that this doesn’t necessarily have to be a flash in the pan. This can actually be sustainable. Think about it: Do Jeff Brohm and Tom Allen seem like guys who are coaching on Saturday and then peeking at the potential openings on Sunday? Brohm was already heavily courted by his hometown Louisville Cardinals, and he stuck with Purdue. Allen is from New Castle, Indiana, and a former high school coach in the state, so he has roots there. Given his recruiting ties to Florida, he may eventually be a candidate for a job in that state, but Dan Mullen, Mike Norvell and Manny Diaz don’t appear to be leaving those jobs anytime soon.
This can become the norm if Brohm and Allen continue to build momentum. They want to be in Indiana (and the Big Ten pays just about as well as the SEC), so why shouldn’t they stick around?
The last year that Indiana and Purdue both went to a bowl game was 2007, and that streak looks like it will end this season. The Old Oaken Bucket game coming up in a little over a month may be more than just a fun rivalry game this season. Basketball season will just have to wait.