BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (AP) — Indiana keeps upgrading the goals.
A few years ago, it was all about reaching a bowl game. Then the quest became winning a bowl game. Now, the hungry Hoosiers are looking for bigger and better things — like a Big Ten East title and maybe even a playoff bid.
“You want to be 12-0 and in the College Football Playoffs, not just win a bowl game,” cornerback Rashard Fant said. “You want to win every game.”
Those are lofty aspirations for a school that hasn’t had a winning season in 10 years, hasn’t won a bowl game in 20 years and hasn’t won a conference crown in half a century. But rather than focus on the past, this team insists it can build on its most recent achievements. Nothing, they believe, should be dismissed as unattainable.
First-time college head coach Tom Allen will try to lead the Hoosiers to a school record-tying third consecutive bowl bid. A fifth consecutive win over Purdue would break a school record that has stood since 1947. And if the Hoosiers couple a win over their biggest rival with a win at Michigan State, they would take both trophies — the Old Oaken Bucket and the Old Brass Spittoon — in back-to-back seasons for the first time ever.
On paper, Indiana has the look of a contender.
Starting quarterback Richard Lagow returns for his final season feeling more comfortable and sounding more confident. The supporting cast includes Nick Westbrook, last year’s team leader in yards receiving, and Simmie Cobbs Jr., who held the same title in 2015. Cobbs missed all but one offensive series in 2016 because of an injured ankle.
There’s a deep assortment of running backs vying to replace Devine Redding and three starters return from the offensive line.
Defensively, Indiana is looking better, too.
“We want to be a top 25 defense,” standout linebacker Tegray Scales said. “We went from the bottom of the country two years ago to the middle of the Big Ten last year. This year, we want to be in the top 25.”
Nine starters return from that unit including Scales, who led the Football Bowl Subdivision with 23½ tackles for loss, and Fant, whose 48 career passes defensed are the most of any active player in the FBS.
If they do make another big jump, it could be the potent combination Indiana needs to finally break through.
“My goal is to win a Big Ten championship,” safety Chase Dutra said. “You don’t come to a Big Ten school and not want to win a Big Ten championship.”
Here are some things to watch this season:
Former coach Kevin Wilson turned games into an entertaining track meet. He resigned in December amid allegations of player mistreatment. Enter Mike DeBord, one of Allen’s closest confidantes and former mentor of Tom Brady. DeBord acknowledges he has tinkered with the system for the Aug. 31 opener against Ohio State — but nobody is dropping hints about what’s different on an offense that has scored 31.5 points per game over the last five years.
Allen’s balanced life, structured environment and ability to demand intensity and precision with a more positive approach comes right out of the book of former Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy. It’s a big reason Allen was promoted from defensive coordinator to replace Wilson.
GETTING A FOOTHOLD
Two years ago, kicker Griffin Oakes was an all-conference selection. Last season, he struggled as the Hoosiers went through several different holders. Oakes was 16 of 26 on field goals and missed two extra points. If the senior regains his form, it should help the Hoosiers take another step.
If the Hoosiers are going to challenge for a division title, they’ll have to ace a daunting early test. Over their first nine games, they’ll face every team that has won or shared the Big Ten crown since 2005. They open against the Buckeyes, then head to Virginia and host Florida International and Georgia Southern. Next up: A visit to Penn State and a home game against Michigan. And after trips to Michigan State and Maryland, they host Wisconsin.