By the end of the 2019 season, it was surprising that Indiana won 8 games—because it definitely should have won 9. That’s a strange thing to say for the longtime proud basketball school, but it certainly should have closed out Tennessee in the Gator Bowl to finish 9-4.

The Hoosiers going 8-5 (including their best regular season in 26 years) feels like the precursor to something bigger. With 17 starters back, including quarterback Michael Penix Jr., Indiana is in a strange new world with high expectations.

A team with only 4 bowl appearances since 1993 (in a sport where all you have to do is finish .500 to get one) is suddenly gaining momentum and viewed as a program on the rise.

2019 record: 8-5 (5-4)

Is this the peak or can Indiana be even better?

That’s the big question in Bloomington — at least until preseason basketball practice draws near and interest in outdoor sports dies down. It’s not great when the crowd for a night game against Michigan during the best season in decades is hardly distinguishable from the crowds against Eastern Illinois and UConn.

Yes, IU has always been a basketball school, and it probably always will be. There’s a reason Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky and Kansas don’t have storied histories in football — it’s really hard to be good at both.

And while I hesitate to put this modern version of Indiana basketball in the same group as those bluebloods because it doesn’t win near as much, Archie Miller’s program sure spends as much as those other programs. In fact, Indiana spent the most money on basketball recruiting of all the Power 5 programs surveyed by Watch Stadium in 2018. Tom Allen’s football program, on the other hand, spent the 29th most money among public schools on recruiting in the 2019 fiscal year.

I bring this up not to criticize the budget of Indiana athletic director Fred Glass but to properly frame the football program’s success. It isn’t aiming for conference titles, just like Kentucky isn’t in the SEC. That’s OK, it’s clear where the priorities are. Winning 8 games and playing in bowl games is a whole lot of fun.

Can Indiana be even better than 2019? Well, maybe, if it can keep competing with schools that invest serious resources into their football programs, like Tennessee and Penn State. The Hoosiers lost by a combined 8 points to those two last season. But 8-4 (in a normal, non-pandemic season) is probably the ceiling for Indiana until it starts recruiting at a much higher level. The Hoosiers have just five 4-star recruits on their roster and rank 12th in the Big Ten in 247’s College Team Talent Composite.

In a loaded East Division with Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan, it’s going to be near impossible to eclipse the 2019 squad — especially with an all-Big Ten schedule.

Michael Penix Jr: Star in the making or destined to always be injured?

Penix is still just a redshirt sophomore, but his moments of brilliance have been overshadowed by injuries. He beat out incumbent starter Peyton Ramsey (now at Northwestern) and went 5-1 as the starter in 2019, but he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in his sixth start. And that was after tearing his ACL in 2018 after showing promise as a true freshman.

With Ramsey now at Northwestern, there is no more looking over his shoulder for Penix — and hopefully no more limping to the sideline, either. When he’s been able to stay on the field, Penix has performed exceptionally well. PFF graded him as the third-best QB in the Big Ten last season, and there’s no reason not to believe he won’t continue his ascent with more experience.

On an offense with eight starters back, including his top three receivers in Whop Philyor, Peyton Hendershot and Ty Fryfogle, it would be surprising to see Penix not have a great season.

If you could buy Tom Allen stock right now, would you?

The easy answer is probably yes, but there is a case to be made that he can only go down because, as mentioned above, Indiana football has a ceiling, and Allen may have hit it in 2019. And obviously, you never want to buy high.

That said, I think Allen’s stock is going to continue to rise.

When you win the way he has at Indiana, people notice. I’m not saying he’s going to be the next head coach at Texas or somewhere like that, but if he continues to win 8 games, he will have plenty of career options should he believe Indiana has hit a ceiling and he wants more. Allen did sign a new 7-year-contract, but that doesn’t mean much if a blueblood really wants him.

Either way, Allen’s name is going to be thrown around prominent openings if he stacks another season or two like 2019.

Game-by-game predictions

Week 1: vs. Penn State (L)

Indiana nearly pulled off the upset in 2019, but I don’t think the Hoosiers will be able to stop Penn State’s offense. Indiana allowed 31 or more points in 6 games last season, and the Nittany Lions have a balanced yet explosive attack waiting in Week 1.

Week 2: at Rutgers (W)

With offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer off to become Fresno State’s head coach, Allen promoted 32-year-old Nick Sheridan. One storyline to watch is how the Hoosiers offense handles that transition. If there are any growing pains early, this is a great week to iron out the kinks — especially with a big game the following week.

Week 3: vs. Michigan (L)

As much as Indiana overachieved relative to expectations, and as much as Michigan underachieves relative to expectations, it still comes down to talent. Michigan simply has more, as it showed in a 25-point win in Bloomington last year. This year could be closer, especially early in the season when an inexperienced Wolverines squad will be establishing an identity.

Week 4: at Michigan State (W)

Looking back at 2019, this was the game that Indiana probably should have won. For whatever reason, Indiana struggles against Michigan State, as it has lost 9 of 10. This season, there will be no doubt as the Spartans are rebuilding and the Hoosiers are rising.

Week 5: at Ohio State (L)

When trying to predict the sneaky game that could give the Buckeyes trouble, I nominated this one. While I don’t think the Hoosiers can win, I do think they have an offense capable of putting up the amount of points it’s going to take to keep it competitive against Ohio State. And that probably still means losing by 21.

Week 6: vs. Maryland (W)

Indiana may hit a season high in yards in this one. The combination of Maryland’s decent offense and terrible defense should allow the Hoosiers to keep their foot on the gas for a while.

Week 7: at Wisconsin (L)

The best time to play Wisconsin will be early in the season because by now, Wisconsin will either have Jack Coan back at QB or Graham Mertz will be established enough at QB. And the Badgers should have Jonathan Taylor’s replacement figured out by now, too. This will be a great test for Penix and the Hoosiers’ offense, though, as Wisconsin regularly fields one of the country’s top defenses. I think Wisconsin wins a lower-scoring game.

Week 8: vs. Purdue (W)

Anything close to last year’s double-overtime thriller would be great TV. With Rondale Moore back in the fold, both teams could break 40 points again. The Old Oaken Bucket will stay with IU, though, thanks to Penix and running back Stevie Scott. Indiana has balance on offense; Purdue does not.

2020 projection: 4-4 (4-4, 4th in B1G East)

The 2019 team was viewed as a fun story. What would qualify as a fun story in 2020? Probably 5-3 because that would mean a win against either Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan or Wisconsin. Anything worse than 4-4 is probably a step back — or at the bare minimum, a disappointment. We’ve already seen plenty of upsets around the country, though, and Indiana has enough talent to pull a few off.