Our Big Ten preview series is back. Over the next few weeks, we’ll make our way through the Big Ten East and West from the bottom to the top.
Our countdown continues with the Indiana Hoosiers. Our Axel Boada breaks it all down.
2014 Record: 4-8, 1-7
2015 WNUR Predicted Record: 5-7, 1-7
Key Returners: Nate Sudfeld (QB) Dan Feeney (OL)
Key Departures: Tevin Coleman (RB) Shane Wynn (WR) Bobby Richardson (DL)
After a couple years of steady improvement under head coach Kevin Wilson, the Hoosiers hit a brick wall in 2014. An upset of SEC East champ Missouri early in the season was dampened by an improbable loss to Bowling Green the week before, and a season-ending shoulder injury to quarterback Nate Sudfeld in Week 6 all but guaranteed Indiana would join Purdue as the Big Ten’s cellar dwellers. Fortunately for the Hoosiers, Sudfeld is back and looking to make his case as one of the conference’s best quarterbacks. Before his injury, he was on pace to putting up career-best numbers, throwing for nearly 1,200 yards and completing over 60 percent of his passes. However, Sudfeld and the Hoosier offense will be without the services of All-American Tevin Coleman, an absurdly good running back who rushed for a school-record 2,036 yards and 15 touchdowns. Replacing his production this season will be nearly impossible, but UAB transfer Jordan Howard looks like a solid replacement. In 2014, the junior rushed for 1,587 yards and 13 touchdowns. Of course, Howard didn’t face teams the likes of Ohio State and Michigan State while at UAB, but a running back ranked in the top 10 nationally should be pretty good anywhere they play. A big question mark is the receiving corps, a group of young players who floundered last season behind senior Shane Wynn. They should put up better numbers this season with Sudfeld back at the helm.
Indiana’s offensive woes masked a defense that saw solid improvement from the year before. The defense gave up about 100 less yards of total offense to opposing teams and about a touchdown less per game. They also had 13 interceptions, nearly double their 2013 total. They still, however, ranked near the bottom of the conference in most defensive categories. Indiana was just decent against the run and opponents weren’t scared to throw on the secondary. Things won’t get easier without defensive lineman Bobby Richardson, who led the team last season with 5.5 sacks, two more than any other Hoosier. Second-leading tackler T.J. Simmons returns at middle linebacker and Nick Mangieri’s move back to defensive line may pay off. A fair share of underclassmen found themselves in the front seven’s rotation, so perhaps that experience will prove beneficial moving forward. But as it stands, there are a lot of unknowns on this Hoosier defense, making it unreasonable to expect them to perform better than last season.
SPECIAL TEAMS PREVIEW:
Kickers Griffin Oakes and Aaron Del Grosso struggled making field goals, going a combined 14-for-22. Del Grosso’s disappointing 1-for-4 mark skews the stats at least somewhat. And in Oake’s defense, three of his five misses came from 40 yards or more. Wide receiver J-Shun Harris II will yet again handle kick return duties, though Indiana may be looking for someone new to return punts with Shane Wynn gone. Harris II is a decent returner but his expanded role on offense makes it unlikely he will be pulling double duty on special teams. A bigger special teams concern is punt coverage. Erich Toth averaged about 41 yards per punt but Indiana was prone to giving up good field position. Improving coverage would make life easier for the team on both sides of the ball.
Expectations are changing in Bloomington. No longer are 4-8 seasons acceptable from a team that’s never really had much success. That’s a testament to the job Kevin Wilson has done with the program, though this past season is one he and the fan base would like to forget. A good season would likely do just that.
Best case? Sudfeld lives up to his potential, Howard runs well and the secondary tightens up their pass defense. They’re also helped by a schedule that looks to guarantee at least five wins. They have little chance against teams such as Ohio State but should handle lesser teams like Southern Illinois and FIU.
Worst case? Sudfeld ends up being a mid-tier Big Ten quarterback, the young receivers struggle and no real pass rusher emerges out of the front seven. Or they drop a non-conference game to a much weaker opponent, the way they did against Bowling Green.
It really is hard to tell how Indiana will bounce back from a disappointing 2014 campaign. But if the Hoosiers handle their business on both sides of the ball and win the games they’re supposed to, they may have a chance at their first bowl game since 2007.