The season is inching closer and closer and, with that, so is our series on the best- and worst-case scenarios for every Big Ten team in 2014.
These aren't predictions or scenarios that are illustrative of the most probable outcomes. They are simply meant to show the potential highs and lows in a season, and any game-by-game breakdowns are more of a means to an end than anything else. Also an important reminder: We're trying to have some fun with these.
Up next are the Indiana Hoosiers.
Assembly Hall is a bit quieter than usual moments before tip-off on Nov. 22, as small pockets of seats remain empty for the basketball game against Lamar. The turnout is still great, but the drop is still noticeable.
"What about our attendance record?" red-faced Hoosiers basketball coach Tom Crean yells while turning to the crowd.
So where is everybody? Everyone in Bloomington knows. They are all in sports bars, dorms or four hours away in Columbus, Ohio, for the highly anticipated Nov. 22 football game against the Buckeyes. For once, this basketball school can’t get enough of the gridiron -- and the Hoosiers have been a treat to watch.
They currently stand at 8-2, after losses to Missouri and Michigan State. It’s Indiana’s best start since 1993, before most of its players were even born, and the campus is rocking. Fans start a petition for an actual mascot -- most votes go toward a return of Ox the bulldog -- and quarterback Nate Sudfeld, running back Tevin Coleman and receiver Shane Wynn are already locks for the All-Big Ten Team.
But the real surprise here, the one that causes all Indiana fans to rub their eyes every time they spot a positive headline, is the Indiana defense. No, it’s not a top-10 unit -- or even in the top 40. But it’s right around average. And never did mediocrity feel so good. Defensive coordinator Brian Knorr is hailed as a genius and a magician, and one local outlet even approaches Knorr about doing a photo-shoot dressed as a wizard. (Knorr politely declines.)
With Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller out for the season, Indiana’s offense has easily become the most dynamic and fun to watch in the conference. Coleman is averaging more than 7 yards a carry, and the Sudfeld-Wynn connection has become a Big Ten phenomenon. A group of student-fans don T-shirts with crimson-and-cream Superman emblems, but insist the "S" stands for Sudfeld. Wynn even cracks into the top-six all-time in Indiana receiving.
There is a small Hoosiers contingent in Columbus for the game. Their reds blend into the scarlet and gray of the crowd, but all the "Hoosier daddy?" poster boards can’t be ignored. It’s a back-and-forth affair, but Indiana strikes first. Sudfeld escapes defensive lineman Joey Bosa to find Coleman in the flat, and he shakes two defenders turning a short catch into a 68-yard score. The matchup is almost like a poor man’s version of Michigan State-Oregon, but it’s just as entertaining.
But disaster strikes in the fourth. Bosa makes up for his mistake, as he and Michael Bennett plow into Coleman and the ball comes loose. OSU recovers and then milks five minutes off the clock before kicking a last-second field goal to win 35-34. Hoosier Nation is crushed, but they take solace in the fact that this team has surpassed all their expectations. Plus, there is always basketball season.
Sudfeld makes up for the loss by smacking around hapless Purdue the next week, as he drops five touchdown passes on the Boilermakers’ secondary. Indiana ends the regular season ranked within the top 25 at 9-3 and earns an invitation to a decent bowl. Hope is high for the future.
New defensive coordinator, new defensive alignment, new defensive players. Same old pitiful defense.
The Hoosiers make quick work of the unmighty Sycamores of Indiana State in the opener, but fans’ hopes take a dive just two weeks later against Bowling Green. The MAC opponent actually reclaims its falcon from the Toledo Zoo to drum up fan interest but, during the pregame, it swoops down and flies away with one of the Hoosiers’ game balls. The actual game doesn’t go any better. The Falcons’ Matt Johnson attacks Indiana through the air and throws five touchdowns en route to a 41-39 win.
It’s shades of 2012 all over again. "When does the basketball season start again?" one traveling fan asks within earshot of an angered Kevin Wilson.
Basketball can’t come fast enough. It is more of the same with the Hoosiers. The offense misses Tre Roberson a bit more than it thought it would and takes a small step backward, but its total offense is still ranked within the top 30. The real issue -- to no one’s surprise -- is defense.
Knorr, the defensive coordinator, privately wishes he never left Wake Forest. This seems like an impossible situation. The 3-4 scheme is just as ineffective as the 4-3, and even a personnel switch here or a substitution there can’t stem the scoring tide. Missouri racks up more than 600 yards of offense the next week, and Maryland gets close to 500 the week after.
Knorr wakes up in a cold sweat the Tuesday after losing to Maryland, 42-35, as Indiana drops to 1-3. His wife reassures him it was just a nightmare, but he was simply replaying the past three games in his head. It hasn’t been pretty.
His defense shows what’s believed to be signs of progress against North Texas in a convincing 49-21 win. But the coming weeks show that "progress" was actually just Indiana playing an inferior opponent. Knorr is forced to swallow two Advil every time he even thinks about watching film. The Hoosiers win just two more games all season, against Rutgers and Purdue, finishing 4-8.
Wilson is on the hot seat, Knorr is seriously considering latching on to another team, and the Indiana defense just becomes an overused punchline. In the season-ending news conference, Wilson and Knorr say it will just take time to adjust to a new defensive system. They say next season will be better and, Wilson jokes, "It can’t get any worse -- right?"
But can it ever get any better?