CHICAGO -- There was a moment last season when Kofi Hughes learned what it felt like to be an Indiana basketball player. The Hoosiers were coming off a 24-21 win over Iowa on Nov. 3, and the Leaders division race was wide open, thanks in part to the postseason ineligibility of Ohio State and Penn State. Indiana controlled its own destiny in the Big Ten heading into a crucial home matchup with Wisconsin. Rose Bowl discussions filled campus. Anticipation was high.
"It was so unique," said Hughes, a senior wide receiver. "You actually had students coming up to you like, 'Oh my god, good luck this week.' We had all the hype that the basketball team gets. It was almost surreal."
The feeling proved short-lived, as Wisconsin steamrolled Indiana 62-14. The Hoosiers went on to lose their final three regular-season games by a combined score of 163-71.
Entering the 2013 campaign, Indiana has its sights set on reaching just its second bowl game since 1993. But there's reason for optimism. The Hoosiers' schedule features eight home games, including five to open the season against Indiana State, Navy, Bowling Green, Missouri and Penn State. Indiana doesn't leave Bloomington until Oct. 12, by which point it could have already piled up between three to five wins.
"It's definitely a big plus," said senior safety Greg Heban. "Being able to stay home will allow us to get comfortable early in the year, which is big."
The Hoosiers' biggest strength, however, should be their offense, which brings back 10 starters from a unit that ranked second in the conference in total yardage (442 yards per game) last fall. Indiana managed to win only four games, but it took visible strides in the right direction.
Head coach Kevin Wilson, who coached players such as Sam Bradford and Adrian Peterson while overseeing some of the most prolific offenses in Oklahoma history, was less impressed. Despite the Hoosiers' numbers, Wilson believes his team just scratched the surface of its offensive potential.
"I don't think the offense was good," Wilson said. "Thirty points a game is really not a whole lot in college football today."
Wilson believes the biggest hurdle is getting the Hoosiers to turn last season's "stats offense" into a "winning offense," starting with establishing a consistent running game in the red zone. According to cfbstats.com, Indiana converted just nine first downs off rushing plays in the red zone last year, 11th in the Big Ten. The Hoosiers ran just 27 rushing plays on third-down attempts of three yards or fewer, which also ranked 11th in the conference -- a product of its reticent approach on the ground in pivotal short-yardage situations.
"We had no running game, so we were really a one-dimensional team and a one-dimensional team is pretty easy to defend," Wilson said. "Our third-down conversions were extremely poor. We got bogged down in the red zone."
To address the issue, Indiana will feature a three-headed backfield attack led by redshirt senior Stephen Houston, who carried 161 times for 749 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns last season. Sophomore speedster Tevin Coleman and bruising junior D'Angelo Roberts will complement him. Behind a talented young offensive line with another year of experience under its belt, the Hoosiers should feel more comfortable rushing the ball to pick up first downs.
"You look all around -- it's crazy," Hughes said. "The line is great, and the running backs look a lot better."
The quarterback situation also remains unsettled, as junior Cameron Coffman and sophomores Tre Roberson and Nate Sudfeld are competing for the starting job in preseason camp. Roberson, who sat out 2012 after breaking his leg just two games into the year, is a dual-threat playmaker, while Sudfeld and Coffman are more conventional pocket passers. No matter who emerges from the position battle, Hughes is confident the offense can pick up right where it left off. "I don't think anybody really cares," he said. "At the end of the day, it's Cam, Nate or Tre -- they're all three great players. We can win with any of them."
On defense, Indiana returns nine starters from a unit that gave up an average of 6.1 yards per play and 35.3 points per game last season, both conference lows. It also came up short in several costly situations. Consider this: During a five-game losing streak from Sept. 15-Oct. 20, Indiana lost four games by a combined 10 points despite averaging 36.3 points per contest.
In order to reach its first bowl game since 2007, Indiana will need to make significant improvements on that side of the ball. The group figures to be deeper and more experienced, but several newcomers -- both juco transfers and freshmen -- will be counted on to contribute right away.
It's early, but Hughes has already noticed a difference from the defense in 2013.
"I haven't said this in previous years, because it was always this mindset in practice where, 'OK, we're just going to beat up on the defense,'" Hughes said. "This year? It's actually hard. We're not scoring every time. They're making plays, getting interceptions every practice, stopping us all the time."
Indiana has a long way to go, but it has the pieces to make a run at the postseason. And if that happens, Hughes and his teammates may experience a bump in on-campus popularity for an extended period of time.
"Our mindset is pure confidence," Hughes said. "We're fixing the things we needed to fix, we're lifting more weight, running faster than we ever ran. I look around now and say to myself, 'OK now, we've got a squad.'"