Indiana head coach Tom Allen, center, celebrates with his team

Indiana head coach Tom Allen, center, has Indiana 6-2 and bowl eligible with Northwestern visiting Bloomington Saturday. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- For the first time in more than three decades, Indiana football (No. 17) will start a college football season ranked in the top 25 and matched against another top-25 team when the Hoosiers open at No. 18 Iowa on Saturday afternoon.

Despite the expectations whipping around Tom Allen’s team, Galen Clavio, the director of undergraduate studies for the IU Media School, delivered this succinct analysis of the vibe around IU football as the 2021 season begins.

“A program that has been mired in not just a sub-mediocrity for most of its existence but frankly choked by that fog of constant underachievement and constant under-resourcing, constant tripping over your feet and having the football pulled out from under you."

Well, now that you mentioned it.

IU won six of eight games last season and endured offseason blowback for stumbling against Ole Miss in the Outback Bowl. It was the first time since 1991 that Indiana celebrated back-to-back winning seasons. Critics noted that 2020 was a throwaway year because of the issues created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now, IU is primed to deliver three consecutive winning seasons for the first time since 1947.

Can the Hoosiers succeed?

The WDRB Sports staff believe that IU can — and will.

Surest Ws: Idaho; at Western Kentucky; Michigan State; Rutgers.

Surest Ls: at Penn State; Ohio State.

Swing Games:  Cincinnati; at Michigan; Minnesota.

Upset City: Although Indiana sits ahead of Iowa in the AP poll, the Hoosiers are likely to be a 3 1/2-point underdog in Iowa City. IU has lost seven of its last eight against Iowa as well as five of its last six trips to Kinnick Stadium. Until the Hoosiers prove otherwise, any win at Iowa is an upset.

Biggest Strength: On paper, this looks like the most talented Indiana team in three decades. The Hoosiers figure to open with as many as 16 guys who have started games the last two seasons. The IU coaching staff worked the transfer portal to supplement that group with talented players from USC, Auburn, Ole Miss, Michigan and Florida State.

Biggest Question: The running game as well as the offensive line. The Hoosiers ranked next-to-last in the Big Ten in rushing yards per carry last season at 3.1 yards. Halfback Stephen Carr, a transfer from USC, is quicker to hole than the departed Stevie Scott, but the front five must prove they can provide running lanes against top Big Ten defensive lines.

Mr. Indispensable: The Hoosiers beat Wisconsin last season without the injured Michael Penix Jr. at quarterback, but the offense stalled in the loss to Ole Miss without him. ProFootballFocus calls Penix “hands down” the best quarterback in the Big Ten because of his accuracy throwing deep passes. Penix led the Big Ten with 274 yards passing per game in 2020.

Breakout Performer: For all the clamor that Indiana needs somebody like Carr to emerge as a First-Down Machine at running back, the Hoosiers also need another receiver to draw coverage from senior Ty Fryfogle. That guy will be Miles Marshall, a large (6 feet 2 inches tall), physical receiver who had four catches for 89 yards against Ohio State last season.

Did You Know? According to ProFootballFocus, Fryfogle led the nation with nine contested catches of 15 yards or more in 2020. He was third in the Big Ten with seven touchdowns.

Numbers Racket: The Hoosiers are ranked 19th in Phil Steele’s power poll, 23rd in ESPN’s Football Power Index and No. 24 in Jeff Sagarin’s predictor computer formula as well as in Pro Football Focus’ formula.

Final Record

  • Eric Crawford, 8-4: Indiana won't sneak up on anybody in the Big Ten, but it may not have to. The key will be keeping Penix healthy for a season, and if the Hoosiers can do that, it will begin to build on last season's magic. A lot will depend on whether big-name opponents like Michigan or Penn State return to form. If they don't, Indiana could well be ready to capitalize. Otherwise, it'll be another respectable bowl season in Bloomington, and what's wrong with that? 
  • John Lewis, 9-3: If Penix can stay healthy a full season, the Hoosiers have a chance to be contenders again in the Big Ten.
  • Tom Lane, 8-4: Opener at Iowa is big. There is enough returning talent including a hopefully healthy Penix to take the Hoosiers to their 3rd straight winning season.
  • Rick Bozich, 7-5: The Hoosiers are not scheduled for success, with Big Ten road games against Iowa and Penn State as well as a non-conference home game against Top 10 Cincinnati. IU has not defeated Michigan in consecutive seasons since 1959. Ohio State remains several cuts above the Hoosiers. Anybody who considers 7-5 a disappointing season has flunked a history course in IU football. And history says 8-4 seasons are rare in Bloomington.

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