LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- When the season started, Indiana earned 549 votes in the AP preseason college football poll. They ranked No. 17.
Michigan State earned zero.
The Hoosiers placed six players on Phil Steele's Big Ten preseason first team.
Michigan State placed zero.
On Saturday at Memorial Stadium in Bloomington, No. 10 Michigan State will try to grind for its seventh consecutive victory as the Spartans battle Kentucky and Wake Forest for the Feel Good story of this season.
Indiana will grind to try to save its season.
In August, this game flashed as a likely win for IU. On Thursday, the Hoosiers were a 4.5 point home underdog in Las Vegas.
Win and the Hoosiers climb back to .500. Lose and IU tumbles to 2-4, with Ohio State looming next weekend and three road games over the season's final five weeks.
Last week was the bye week that Indiana needed, its final chance to exhale until late November.
"We went back and refined some things and evaluated," IU coach Tom Allen said. "OK, these are things that keep showing up that we need to make sure we're working on even more to where we can execute at critical times.
"So to me it was just an overall sharpening of what we do, making some adjustments and changes to things that have not worked and getting out of it what we want."
A season that started with publicity in all the national publications and serious talk about 8, 9 or more victories will immediately twist to the old Indiana football narrative if the Hoosiers lose:
Can Indiana qualify for a bowl trip? Will IU have to win the Old Oaken Bucket game against Purdue to do it?
What's gone wrong?
A shorter list would focus on what hasn’t gone wrong.
Quarterback Michael Penix Jr. has not been the same player he was in 2020 or 2019. His completion percentage is less than 54 percent. He's thrown nearly twice as many interceptions (7) as touchdown passes (4).
There were questions about his health even before Penix suffered a shoulder injury against Penn State that is likely to result in back-up Jack Tuttle starting Saturday against the Spartans.
After ranking 12th in running the ball in the Big Ten last season, the Hoosiers have slipped to 13th this season, laboring at 3.4 yards per carry. Not good enough. Too many second-and-long or third-and-long situations.
When fall camp opened, IU had four veteran scholarship backs. On Saturday it will have one -- USC transfer Stephen Carr. His backups will be a collection of walk-ons and untested freshmen. Two transfers and one injury emptied the running back room.
The offensive line does not push enough piles. The offensive play-calling is a primary talking point on podcasts and message boards.
The defense has allowed 8 more points per game than it did last season. Skeptics argued that Indiana's fantastic turnover margin (plus-8) last season was not sustainable.
Turns out they were not being skeptical. They were being insightful. A year after IU intercepted 17 passes in 8 games, IU has picked 2 in 5 games. Overall, IU sits at minus-3 in turnovers.
That should answer why Indiana sits at 2-3, with victories over Idaho and Western Kentucky. But there is one category where coach Tom Allen's team ranks first in the country:
Strength of schedule.
According to Jeff Sagarin's computer power formula, Indiana has played the most difficult schedule in the nation.
I can't explain all the factors Sagarin used to make that determination. But I can say this:
Indiana has played three teams (No. 2 Iowa; No. 3 Cincinnati and No. 7 Penn State) ranked in the Top 7 in the latest AP poll. Maryland has played a pair -- Iowa and No. 6 Ohio State.
Nobody else in the country has played more than one opponent ranked in the Top 7.
You can include Michigan State on that list. The Spartans (6-0) have not played anybody in the Top 7. They have not played anybody in the Top 25. They have not played a single FBS opponent with a winning record.
But Michigan State has been so impressive that the wise-guys have started pushing MSU coach Mel Tucker as a candidate to fix the Louisiana State football program.
What would Indiana's record be if the Hoosiers had played Northwestern, Youngstown State, Miami (Florida), Nebraska, Western Kentucky and Rutgers?
There is no reliable answer to that question. What is known is this:
Saturday will be the Hoosiers' shot to prove they are a better team than their record says that they are. It's their chance to save their season.
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