No one is ignoring the general tire fire that Big Ten football has become, or the fact that the two best teams (Ohio State, Penn State) in the league's "Leaders Division" are banned from postseason play. This opens the door for someone, anyone to fill to void. Still when unusual headlines start appearing, you take note. Such as:
It's November and Indiana controls its destiny to reach the Rose Bowl.
Yes, Indiana University, the one in Indiana. Hoosiers. Bob Knight. Seasons and seasons of utter football futility, including last year's 1-11 campaign.
Meet the most unlikely BCS bowl contender you've ever seen.
It's not just that the Hoosiers have been to just one Rose Bowl ever , or nine bowls of any kind in 125 years or just one after 1993. It's not even that they've averaged a meager 1.7 Big Ten wins over the last 15 seasons, the job of the football team apparently is to just pass the time until the start of basketball practice (IU is preseason No. 1).
It's that they stand a humble 3-5 on this season and just 1-3 in the Big Ten. So no one is saying the Hoosiers are actually a good team. Except, when you consider where they came from and you actually watch them play, one thing is clear: They are a vastly improved team under second-year coach Kevin Wilson.
And with Iowa on the docket this week and Wisconsin next, they are just a few victories away from qualifying for the league title game in Indianapolis. Win that and it's off to Pasadena. Sure, it's an unlikely road, but at least there's a map for a change.
Wilson sort of rolls his eyes at the circumstances because he sure isn't claiming IU is ready to compete with the nation's elite teams.
"People are talking about us controlling our own destiny but we're not trying to be an upper-level team, we're just trying to play hard every Saturday," Wilson said. "We're not a winning team. We're 3-5 and won one Big Ten game. I tell our guys that you've always controlled your own destiny, you control the way you prepare."
Wilson's correct, of course. Not just in a dose of reality squashing, whatever fun there is of Indiana potentially playing for a championship this late in the season way. His philosophy of "constant, consistent improvement" is the only way Indiana – long a Big Ten pushover – becomes even an average program, which is the more realistic short-term goal.
Here's the thing though: If you truly love college football, then you know sometimes the fun is watching great teams prove they are great, like Saturday's big game between No. 1 Alabama and No. 5 LSU.
And sometimes the fun is watching a team get better, even if better doesn't result in good or even great. That's the beauty of having 125 teams of all shapes, sizes and philosophies playing upper-level football. Not everything has to be about the BCS standings.
Indiana is one of those teams to watch, and not so much because of the three victories – over weak opponents Indiana State, Massachusetts and Illinois. It's the losses that turned heads.
They had Michigan State on the ropes with a 10-point fourth quarter lead until the Spartans made a huge comeback to win by four. "They did a great job recognizing and really executing their philosophy," MSU coach Mark Dantonio said.
They gave mighty Ohio State, still unbeaten, everything they could handle in a wild, entertaining game before falling by three. "IU was much improved," Buckeye coach Urban Meyer noted.
In short, they look like a real Big Ten team for the first time in a long time. They don't turn the ball over much. They are fundamentally sound. They may lack high-level talent at some positions, but they play the game well.
And with just eight seniors playing, well, the trend line here is obvious.
Wilson is about the most workmanlike coach you'll ever find, which is exactly what was needed. There are no magic tricks to get Indiana good. Wilson said during the offseason he sat in on a talk by Michael Lombardi, the former NFL general manager and current NFL Network analyst who was invited to campus by hoops coach Tom Crean. Lombardi's advice: "You need hundreds and hundreds of good work days to build Indiana."
That reaffirmed Wilson's beliefs. "You know the coaching cliché, we're taking it one game at a time?" he said. "We're not even focused on the next game. We're focused on the next day. Did we have a good work day?
"I tell people, 'we're not going to get there because of fancy coaching and great recruiting; we're going to get there because of hard work.' "
Wilson clearly likes his team. He even liked it last year when it went 1-11. He saw the little things, the success in practice, the commitment to the weight room and the good plays in the shadow of bad scoreboards. Coaches are constantly teaching but they don't always harp on what a guy can't do. Film session can be filled with the positive plays.
People are noticing outside the program too, and this is what may be even more interesting. Indiana is actually recruiting some very good players.
Rivals.com began tracking classes in 2002 and until Wilson arrived, IU never signed a single four-star player. It got linebacker Zack Shaw of Ohio in 2011. This year, it has verbal commitments from three four-star players and is in on a few more. It could yield guys who were once committed to Ole Miss, Iowa and Clemson.
[Related: Indiana's unprecedented recruiting success]
Wilson has made strides getting local players to think IU. And the State of Indiana, thanks to Peyton Manning's Colts, is no longer a basketball-only place.
"There are a lot of players now," Wilson said.
So Indiana is just 3-5. And yes, the "control their Rose Bowl destiny" is a bit of a joke, except that's just the hook to see something is going on in Bloomington.
Indiana is playing a meaningful November football game and after their history, distant and recent, the circumstances of how are not so important. Just enjoy the surprise.
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