BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — When you're making big and bold predictions, it's nice to have a valid excuse in your back pocket.
The Big Ten finally gets back to business this weekend, and for perennially unranked Indiana, the season starts on Saturday afternoon with a showdown against No. 8-ranked Penn State at Memorial Stadium.
There will be no fans in the stands, and gatherings of large groups around campus won't be happening – or let's hope they won't; let's be smart, people — but despite all that, there's plenty of excitement around campus for this truncated Indiana football season.
And for good reason.
Indiana won eight games a year ago, for the first time in 26 years. They played in their first-ever Florida bowl game, they ended the nation's longest streak of being unranked by earning a spot in the Associated Press top-25 for one week in early November, and they return 16 starters and all sorts of depth at every position on both sides of the ball.
They are a team on the rise. But being on the rise is one thing, and reaching the mountaintop is another. Beating the bluebloods, well, that's something of a mountaintop.
At Indiana, Tom Allen enters his fourth season as the Hoosiers' head coach, and he's received plenty of praise for turning around what is college football's all-time worst program. No Power 5 school has lost more games than Indiana in the last century-plus.
Allen gets plenty of praise for being a good coach and an even better person, but the one blemish on his record thus far is a failure to beat the big boys. In his first three years, he's a combined 0-9 against Penn State, Ohio State and Michigan.
So does that finally change this year?
Yes, it does. It starts on Saturday, the day that Indiana beats Penn State for only the second time ever in 24 tries.
But here's the catch. I'm a little loopy. I can't operate heavy machinery right now, and I also probably can't logically make sound college football picks.
It's the pain meds.
Jumping on the bandwagon?
I'm very ready to jump on the Indiana bandwagon this year, because I see the talent there, and I feel like the Hoosiers are ready to turn the corner.
But I just had knee surgery on Wednesday to repair a torn meniscus, and my vertical leap, which used to be 4.0 inches, is more like 0.4 inches right now. The pain meds might have me a little foggy, but despite my present condition, here's my news for you.
Indiana beats Penn State on Saturday. Book it.
Penn State is a 6-point favorite and the Nittany Lions, as we know, are 22-1 all-time against Indiana, with the only win coming in 2013. They have totally dominated this series.
But surprisingly, the Hoosiers are something of a trendy pick. They were a double-digit underdog in this game in preseason future bets, and opened as 7-point dogs on Sunday. It clicked down to 6.5 quickly, then to 6. At some sites, it's down to 5.5 points, with more than 60 percent of the money coming in on the Hoosiers.
And even ESPN's Scott Van Pelt, who admitted he has "no clue about any of these Big Ten teams right now,'' took the Hoosiers and the points as one of his best bets on his Thursday night/Friday morning show. "But the Hoosiers are better than people think ... I think.''
(Pain meds fogginess: I'm very afraid of seeing an SVP "Bad Beats'' segment where they Hoosiers fail to cover another onside kick and lose a close one.)
In all seriousness, I do think the Hoosiers are ready to take that next step. In the past two years, they have played the Nittany Lions tough, losing one-score games each year. Peyton Ramsey passed for 371 yards against them last year, and the Nittany Lions can be beaten through the air.
I can see Michael Penix Jr. having a huge game on Saturday. I can see the Hoosiers scoring 30 points or more and I can see the much-improved Indiana defense making big plays and forcing turnovers.
It's all kind of foggy, but I can see it.
Golden opportunity, right from the start
Indiana has been prepared to hit the ground running this season all along, because the first two Big Ten schedules had them opening the season at Wisconsin instead of the usual three easier nonconference games that often dot their schedule.
So when this most-recent eight-game schedule was announced, nothing really changed in preparation for the Hoosiers, other than the actual high-profile opponent. They get a chance to make some major noise right out of the gate.
And that's all good
"I do think it adds a sense of urgency and a heightened focus to your guys when they know they are playing a team of the caliber of Penn State to open the season in everything that you do,'' Allen said. "Obviously, we did not know this until a month or so ago, but at the same time, it has been something that once we knew we were going to a conference-only schedule, for the longest time we thought we were opening against Wisconsin. Either way, we knew we were going to have one of the top teams in the country as an opener.
"The bottom line is that this is the schedule we were handed and we do not ever really talk about anything other than we have goals as a program and beating those top-25 teams is something that we have not been able to do a lot in the past. As one of our team's goals, the team came up with these and that is the objective that we have. Obviously, playing a team like Penn State gives us that opportunity.''
Beating the big boys is that next logical step for the Hoosiers. Even in last year's turnaround season, the eight wins all came against teams that finished the season with a losing record. There was no signature win, at least as far as the national rankings go. Sure, it was nice to win at Nebraska for the first time in 60 years, and win important Big Ten road games at Maryland and Purdue, but there was no real scalp to brag about on a national scale.
Well, those opportunities are lined up now. Penn State is here this weekend and Michigan, which has a 24-game winning streak going against the Hoosiers, is here in two weeks.
But now, can they do it? Moral victories don't count anymore.
"When you talk about what is next for our program, I think that's it, winning these kind of games,'' Allen said "Obviously, being close is no longer acceptable, and the goal — or the objective — is to find a way to finish and win these games. We have been in them, we have been close, but we now have to finish them. We have talked a lot about that.
"It is really process driven, and there are a lot of variables that go into a game. The bigger the game is, the heightened attention to detail needs to be in all three phases. I think special teams is one that has been a major factor in these games when you talk about beating teams of this caliber. To me, that has been a big focus and will continue to be a focus. That is the next step for us as a program, to be able to find a way to win these types of games and elevate our program.''
What's next? An Indiana win. I can see it happening, even through the fog. And I think it will.
I'm riding with the Hoosiers on Saturday, with a straight-up win. Call it 38-31 Hoosiers.
Related stories on Indiana football
- REMEMBERING THAT ONE VICTORY: Indiana has a 1-22 all-time record against blueblood Penn State, but here's a nice look-back at the one victory by the Hoosiers in 2013. CLICK HERE
- QUARTERBACK BATTLE: It's the best quarterback battle on the Big Ten schedule this weekend when Indiana's Michael Penix Jr. squares off against Penn State's Sean Clifford. CLICK HERE
- NO MARCH IN BAND: There's no place for Indiana's Marching Hundred during game day on Saturday, but they're finding a way to be involved. CLICK HERE