After a few years of putting up great yardage totals and mediocre records, Indiana finally found a defense to pair with its spread attack. It didn’t quite improve the win total, but the Hoosiers felt like a much more dangerous and consistent team in 2016. Now the architect of that offense is gone, former head coach Kevin Wilson, but the leader of the defensive turnaround, former defensive coordinator Tom Allen, takes his place.
Passing-game continuity matters a lot in a team’s consistency season to season and the Hoosiers should have that in spades in 2017. Quarterback Richard Lagow returns after ranking second in the Big Ten in yards per attempt last year. Wide receiver Nick Westbrook is coming off a big year (995 yards, six TDs) and the Hoosiers will also have Simmie Cobbs Jr., a 1,000-yard receiver in 2015 who missed all of 2016. The situation at running back is murkier. Sophomore Tyler Natee is the leading returning rusher, but he’ll need to show more explosiveness after averaging 3.89 yards on 61 carries over 10 games.
Better defensive numbers could be in store for Allen’s second unit in Bloomington. The Hoosiers return nine starters on that side of the ball. This was a well-rounded group in 2016, stopping the run and pass with near equal efficiency. Rashard Fant is one of five starters returning in the secondary and linebacker Tegray Scales probably gets undervalued at an annually deep position in the Big Ten. For Indiana’s defense to truly jump up a level, however, it needs to find a way to limit the big plays in 2017. The Hoosiers ranked 10th in the Big Ten in that category a year ago.
The Hoosiers open with Ohio State on a Thursday, but the three nonconference games after that — Virginia, FIU and Georgia Southern — are all winnable. They might need to be wins as Indiana opens Big Ten play with Penn State and Michigan. If the Hoosiers do come out of that stretch 3-3, bowl eligibility is within reach as the West-Division draw includes Purdue and Rutgers.
Wilson got Indiana to respectability, can Allen push the Hoosiers’ ceiling higher than that? It’s a tough path in the East, but there seems to be enough residual momentum on offense to be encouraged there and defense should be the constant in this equation. Combine that with a schedule that softens somewhat over the second half of the season and a fair assessment here is slightly UP, but that might be tough to replicate in year two just given the pecking order in the East.