BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- It's easy to forget that the 2012 football season could have been very special for the Indiana Hoosiers.
The team finished with a 4-8 record and closed the season with a trio of blowout losses, all of which added up to yet another year without a trip to a bowl. It has been half a decade without a postseason trip for IU, but in mid-November, the Hoosiers played Wisconsin with a real path to the Big Ten Championship game in sight.
Instead, IU got pounded by the Badgers, and the season fell apart.
The residual pain and experience of that failure could pay dividends for this year's squad. The Hoosiers return 10 starters on offense -- including a pair of quarterback with extensive starting experience -- and another eight starters are back on defense. IU will play eight homes games, and the first four non-conference games and the Big Ten opener vs. Penn State will be played at Memorial Stadium.
Armed with an offense that ranked among the best in the Big Ten, plus a passing attack that ranked 17th in the nation, the Hoosiers could have all the pieces in place to finally enjoy a breakthrough season under head coach Kevin Wilson. But even with the planets aligning offensively -- a veteran offensive line, a quality receiving corps, a deep group of running backs -- the question continues to come from the defense.
Time and time again last year Indiana's defense kept the Hoosiers from being successful. They scored 39 points vs. Ball State and lost. They scored 49 vs. Ohio State and lost. They scored 30 at Navy and lost. They scored 35 at Purdue and lost. Offense wasn't the issue. The Hoosiers simply couldn't stop anyone.
Add to it the fact the Hoosiers lost their best defensive players in DTs Adam Replogle and Larry Black, Jr., and there could be some cause for concern. But that isn't the case, at least not from the coaching staff's perspective. Yes, losing veterans like Replogle and Black is tough, but the coaches are confident some of the younger players along the defensive line are ready to make an impact.
"We're very talented (along the defensive line)," Wilson said. "We're a little inexperienced, and maybe that's the Achilles' heel. But not slighting the guys that left because two of those guys went to pro camps, but the guys who came in and the guys who are here, there's more talent than has been here. It's inexperience. We'll see if it plays."
Indiana's schedule ranks among the toughest in the conference, but the coaching staff loves to preach that "iron sharpens iron," and they want to test their team against quality teams. Whether that results in a bowl trip remains to be seen, but if the team can play a lick of defense, the Hoosiers might have the pieces to turn in a winning season this year.
SPOTLIGHT ON SEPTEMBER: The Hoosiers won't be rolling up frequent-flier miles during the first month of the season with all four non-conference games coming at home. Indiana opens with a pair of rematches from last season, battling FCS opponent Indiana State in the opener and searching to avenge a loss to Navy in Week Two. The Navy game should be intriguing because IU had the Midshipmen where it wanted them last year before allowing the game to slip away in the closing minutes. That outing will be followed up by a battle with MAC opponent Bowling Green -- a team that went to a bowl a season ago -- and the non-conference campaign will close vs. SEC opponent Missouri. The Missouri game will provide a measuring stick for the Big Ten season. If Indiana can be competitive with the Tigers or pull off a win, IU would gain a huge boost of confidence going into league play.
KEYS TO SUCCESS: Indiana's offense has long been its strong point, and the story is no different this season. Offensive coordinator Seth Littrell does a great job of getting the most out of his skill-position players, and the Hoosiers' passing attack can turn to three different quarterbacks who bring different looks to the field. Tre Roberson is a dual-threat QB, Cam Cameron is a game manager and Nate Sudfeld brings a little bit of both to the mix. The Hoosiers' receivers are among the best in the Big Ten, and the running backs boast a nice combo of speed and power. PK Mitch Ewald is a weapon, as well, and if the offense is humming, IU will have a chance every time out. Improvement on defense will be critical for the Hoosiers. If IU can get off the field on third down, the team should be in good shape.
AREAS OF CONCERN: Indiana's defense has been atrocious for years, and although the squad has added a bevy of young talent and speed, it is inexperienced. The Hoosiers don't boast a shut-down cornerback, the linebacking corps needs to be more productive, and almost all of IU's pass rush came from the interior of the defensive line a season ago. Unfortunately the quality defensive tackles who were so critical to Indiana's pass rush last year have moved on, and their replacements are unproven. Until IU can prove it can stiffen when the bullets are flying and can avoid big plays, Hoosier fans will be waiting for the other shoe to drop. A blowout loss in the non-conference portion of the schedule would be devastating to team morale.