Why Indiana football is one of the Big Ten’s biggest mysteries this fall

BLOOMINGTON – Big Ten media days, less than two weeks from now in Indianapolis, will mark the start of the conference’s annual academic calendar with some fascinating questions.

A new commissioner will meet his league for the first time, trying to tidy up the messy transition from the last administration. One of the Big Ten’s oldest and most-respected members will have to answer for a scandal that’s rocked a football program to its foundations. USC and UCLA will be one year away from joining.

Indiana’s turn through the scrum probably won’t seem quite so profound. But for all interested, the Hoosiers present a fascinating pair of questions heading into what should be a pivotal 2023 season for coach Tom Allen:

Indiana Head Coach Tom Allen watches his team during Indiana football's Spring Football Saturday event at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, April 15, 2203.
Indiana Head Coach Tom Allen watches his team during Indiana football's Spring Football Saturday event at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, April 15, 2203.

What exactly is IU football this year? And, for a coach whose greatest fundamental strength has been the ability to build a sense of tight-knit camaraderie, can Allen’s approach translate when he leans as heavily into roster turnover as he has the last two years?

Indiana shapes up as one of the Big Ten’s mysteries this fall.

The Hoosiers figure to have transfers, unproven young players — or in some cases both — starting at nearly every position in every phase this season. Quarterback, wide receiver, offensive line, defensive line, linebacker, secondary and even placekicker will need new starters and could feature brand-new faces this fall.

Allen and his staff were particularly aggressive in the transfer portal last winter, adding players like Tayven Jackson, Philip Blidi, E.J. Williams, Andre Carter and a host of others to a roster depleted by graduations and departures following a 4-8 2022.

And there’s growing confidence in a handful of second- and third-year players, headlined by All-American sophomore Jaylin Lucas, being able to fill key roles on both sides of the ball.

But roster turnover isn’t something any coach endures easily. And for Allen, whose success at IU has been underpinned by a tight-knit closeness that’s seemed to elevate his program in key moments and close games, maintaining that chemistry has probably never been more difficult.

It’s easy to roll eyes at Allen’s “love each other” message. But the commitment and kindness that underpin it undeniably resonated with his players across successful 2019 and 2020 seasons. And it has not wavered — Blidi, a Texas Tech transfer, told attendees to a donor dinner last week that when his wife went into labor with their second child while Blidi was out of town, Allen raced to the hospital to be with her until Blidi returned.

The last seven years are littered with stories like that one. Small branches of kindness springing from a larger tree of practicing what you preach, from a coach whose ability to connect and empathize with his players is among his greatest strengths.

If Allen can hold tight to that quality, even in an era when transfers in and out are more common, recruitments move fast and relationships must be built much more swiftly, then perhaps IU can recapture the energy and forward momentum it enjoyed as recently as two years ago.

The Hoosiers need it. Six wins across the last two seasons leave expectations low for the season arriving. IU is expected to be picked at or near the bottom of the Big Ten East, and oddsmakers figure four wins in 2023 would represent par in Bloomington.

Against that backdrop, uncertainty might be one of Allen’s greatest weapons. It will be several weeks before opponents can feel secure in scouting Indiana, for better or worse.

But it’s hard to imagine anything clicking the way Allen needs it to without that sturdy sense of togetherness that underpinned his program’s surge to back-to-back New Year’s bowl berths. Even as roster construction and maintenance become shorter-term and more volatile propositions, IU’s coach must ensure he retains that spirit above all else.

Follow IndyStar reporter Zach Osterman on Twitter: @ZachOsterman.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: IU football: Why it's one of the Big Ten’s biggest mysteries this fall