INDIANAPOLIS – When Big Ten Media Days roll around and players and coaches talk football for hours on end for two straight days, it's a sure sign that it's on.
Football season is here. Right now.
The gathering had a special feel this week, too, after COVID-19 stripped the event a year ago and then added all sorts of starts and stops to the season. The Thursday and Friday talk-a-thons at Lucas Oil Stadium was a return to normalcy, which was a wonderful thing. We're nowhere out of the woods yet, but we're getting really close to having an uninterrupted season with most Big Ten teams nearly fully vaccinated.
So now, hopefully, we can talk about football, football and more football.
There were many obvious storylines at the event. Does Ohio State, which has won a record four-straight Big Ten titles, continue to dominate? Do Wisconsin and Iowa bounce back to regain control of the Big Ten West? Are Michigan and Penn State really starting to slip, or was last year just a one-time COVID-induced fall from grace?
From a national perspective, those are all great topics to dissect. And then there's this: Are the Indiana Hoosiers – the league's whipping boy practically from its inception – really a threat to win the whole thing?
Indiana went 6-1 in Big Ten games last year, tied for the most wins in the league with Iowa and Northwestern. The Hoosiers' only loss was to Ohio State, which finished 5-0 in the league, got to play in the Big Ten title game anyway and then won a playoff game before losing to Alabama in the national championship.
The fun Twitter thread this week was picking the most overrated team in each conference. Several people picked Indiana. Other quote-unquote experts did game-by-game breakdowns, and those stories, as expected, were all over the board.
But that's a great question: Is Indiana overrated?
Let's look at the preseason polls. Some, like ESPN's Power Rankings, don't even have Indiana in the top-25, so how can that be overrated?
Many polls have Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin and Iowa ranked ahead of Indiana, so that ranks the Hoosiers No. 5 in the Big Ten at best.
A few have Michigan and Northwestern ahead of them. That's ranked No. 7. One expert even thought Purdue would beat Indiana this year. That's No. 8.
So if you're looking at Indiana as being somewhere in the fifth-best to eighth-best team in the league, then of course they are not overrated.
Not one bit.
But now here is that other side of the coin. When I talked one-on-one with Indiana coach Tom Allen, I asked him point blank if it was OK to talk about winning a Big Ten championship this year, and he had a simple one-word answer: "Yes.''
Allen has also told me that he has challenged all of his players – and coaches – that if they don't think they can win every week, then they should leave. No one did.
Tom Allen believes. So do his players. But it still might take a while for the nation to be convinced that last year wasn't a fluke.
"Well, that's up to these guys. Every year's different. Every year's new,'' Allen said Friday during his time on the podium at Big Ten Media Days. "Accountability, toughness, and love, that's who we are. That's our three pillars of our program and it's branded by the phrase Love Each Other, which we all know is LEO. So that's our identity. That's our DNA. That's who we are. That's not going to change.
"For me, the ability of this football team, the 2021 Indiana Hoosiers, how well they buy into that they're able to live out those core values and become a true team. I do believe that individuals are made in the offseason, teams are made in the season. So those teams that figure out how to play the best together and allow themselves to be the best football team on game day, that's the team that's going to win. So we're excited about the 2021 Indiana Hoosiers, but that's up to the guys that we brought with us here today and how well they lead and how well the guys that they're leading respond.''
I'm not patting myself on the back at all, but when Indiana finally beat Penn State and Michigan last year as underdogs, I picked the Hoosiers to win both of those games outright, and they did. I thought Indiana had closed the talent gap on Penn State, and I was right.
I had no doubt that Indiana had better players than Michigan last year. I don't gamble on sports, but I told all of my friends who do that Indiana beating Michigan straight up was a mortal lock, the easiest bet of their lives. I was right. They made thousands of dollars.
Indiana also beat Wisconsin as an underdog in December. (Full disclosure, I missed that one.) But what Indiana proved last year was that they were very capable of standing toe to toe with the best teams in the league. And outside of national champion Alabama, no one played Ohio State tougher than Indiana did.
So if I told you that I think Indiana will go 12-0 and win the Big Ten this year, then you can scream from the rooftops that Indiana is overrated. That would be fair. (More full disclosure: I'm not ready to do that quite yet, but read on.) What I do believe is that Tom Allen is exactly right that this is his deepest team ever – at every single position.
The key to a wildly successful season, of course, is keeping quarterback Michael Penix Jr. healthy, something that hasn't happened during his first three seasons at Indiana. He proudly proclaimed Friday that he is healthy and has recovered well from his second ACL surgery last November and will be 100 percent when the Hoosiers take on Iowa in the season opener on Sept. 4.
As long as he stays healthy, Indiana has a solid chance to do some big things this year.
Scroll back up to Allen's philosophy: If you don't think you can win every week, then you shouldn't be here.
See, surprisingly, I agree with him.
Is it possible that Indiana can beat Iowa in the opener, despite being current 5.5-point underdogs? Of course it is. Frankly, I expect them to win that game.
Can they beat Penn State and Michigan on the road, probably as underdogs in both cases? Absolutely. The preseason poll taken Thursday at Media Days had Penn State second in the Big Ten East, and Indiana third just barely ahead of Michigan.
And CIncinnati, a top-10 team, in Bloomington in September? Certainly. Will they win them all? That's hard to say, logically, but winning one game each of those Saturdays is certainly possible.
Indiana plays Ohio State in Bloomington on Saturday, Oct. 23. There are a lot of experts who think Indiana will be 3-3 at best heading into the game, with losses to Iowa, Cincinnati and Penn State.
The over/under win total on Indiana on the FanDuel gambling site is just 7.5 wins. That's all.
But what if they're 6-0? And Ohio State is 6-0 too? If that would happen, it would be fair to say that it will be the biggest football game EVER played in Bloomington.
Let's not get ahead of ourselves, though. The joy of college football is that the drama gets to play out every week, and the value of a regular season means so much more than any other sports, pro or college.
That unbeaten showdown with Ohio State? Totally wait on that.
It starts next week with Indiana opening fall camp and getting ready for the season, with almost all of the emphasis on beating Iowa.
But you're ranking Indiana as a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten team, you're probably off-base. That's not overrated in my book.
This Indiana team is very good, with no obvious weaknesses, something that can rarely be said about the Hoosiers through their history.
And I will agree with Tom Allen on this: Every SINGLE week, Indiana is going to have a chance to win. All 12 of them.
And that, my friends, is all you can ever ask for.