What was your first college football memory? I think mine was on September 21st, 1996. I was nine years old.
I don’t remember a lot about the actual football game, to be honest. I remember hearing Pepe Pearson’s name called a lot, which makes sense, because he scored three touchdowns. But I’ll always remember that bright yellow scoreboard graphic at the end of the game, making sure everybody remembered the final score, in case they lost count. Ohio State: 72. Pitt: 0.
This was an important first memory in a lot of ways. For one, it cemented the knowledge from a very early age that Ohio State was the kind of football program that was capable of beating somebody by 72 dang points. Even with what would become ritual stompings at the hands of Michigan to end every year, if your first memory is blasting somebody by a gazillion, you’re not going to have the most grounded of expectations.
But it also impacts how I think about Pitt. I’ve watched dozens of Pitt games since then. I know they’ve produced NFL stars like Larry Fitzgerald and Lesean McCoy. They’ve played in major bowls and regularly made AP Top 25 appearances. But in the back of my mind, no matter how good that program eventually becomes, a tiny part of me will always think “uh, I saw y’all lose by 72 points.” If you catch that level of suck at just the right time, it’s hard to properly wash that off.
I think I’m not the only Ohio State fan, or hell, college football fan in general, to feel that way about Indiana.
From 1996, my first year of remembering college football, to 2006, Indiana did not make a bowl game. They won more than four games just once. Of the nine times Ohio State and Indiana played during that era, not only did the Buckeyes win every single time, they won every game by double digits. Only two were anything resembling a close game.
It’s not like Indiana’s more recent history has been dramatically more kind, if we’re being honest. The Hoosiers have just made three bowls over the last decade, losing all three. There’s been one seven win season. No AP Top 25 appearances. And no victory over the Buckeyes. You’d have to go back to 1988 for the last time that happened.
Nobody actually gets to watch every college football game, or even every college football team, each season. I do this professionally, and I don’t. We all have to take mental shortcuts in how we knee-jerk evaluate each team, and if you don’t have personal memories of the late 1980s Indiana teams, it’d be completely justifiable for that mental shortcut to be “the Indiana Hoosiers suck”. I still see this on Twitter.
But in case the last few Ohio State-Indiana games weren’t enough to undo that thinking, this week should. Indiana doesn’t suck anymore. And while they’re not likely to beat Ohio State this Thursday, this is an actual football game.
The math certainly agrees. Based on the updated 2017 S&P+ projections, Indiana is projected to finish 40th in the country this season. That’s just behind Washington State, and ahead of squads like Utah, Colorado, BYU, G5-darling South Florida, Michigan State and Minnesota.
A major reason for the statistical love is the Hoosier defense, projected to finish inside the top 30. That makes sense, with the team returning most of a pretty good unit from last season, and now pairs an experienced secondary with linebacker Tegray Scales, a dude who is not only good enough to start for Ohio State, but a dude who deserves to be in the running for best defensive player in the Big Ten, period.
That gives Indiana a different identity. For most of the last two decades, Indiana’s identity was “bad”. Sometimes it was especially horrendously bad, but often, it was bland, unremarkable bad, a general malaise that covers the lower half of the Big Ten basically on a constant basis.
Under Kevin Wilson, Indiana had a different identity, the venerable #CHAOSTEAM, one that would score a bunch of points, scare the absolute living hell out of a superior opponent, and then lose. You probably remember watching CHAOSTEAM recently. Maybe it wasn’t fun. But it sure wasn’t boring.
That’s not this Indiana team. Kevin Wilson is in Columbus now, as you might have heard. Indiana’s new offensive coordinator is Mike DeBord, who has, uh, a challenging track record of offensive success—although to be fair, Tennessee was humming along nicely at the end of last season. Indiana’s running game and OL have a ton of questions.
But they’re loaded on defense this season, playing at home, to perhaps the biggest home game in recent Indiana football history, at least in a decade. College GameDay, on some level anyway, will be there. It’s the primetime game to kick off the first “real” week of the season. They’re facing a team with a ton of pressure.
Ohio State is still probably going to win. Maybe they’re going to win by a lot. They’re the more talented team with the better coaching staff, after all.
But I don’t think this is a gimmie layup game. It’s a team whose strengths match up against Ohio State’s offensive difficulties from last season. And it’s a chance to showcase a potential new identity.
Maybe the rest of y’all are better at this than I am. Maybe you’ve stamped out any lingering memories of what playing “Indiana” used to mean.
But if you haven’t yet, I bet you’ll be closer after Thursday. This isn’t 1996. Or 2006.
This is a legitimate football game.