They're doing something different at Indiana's Memorial Stadium on Saturday. The Hoosiers are planning to stage something they haven't experienced in years, even decades: a big game. And if it's a success, they'll play one exponentially larger a week later.
Yes, the Hoosiers are 4-36 in Big Ten play over the past five seasons, and it has been more than three years since a Big Ten opponent lost in Bloomington. And sure, they were on a five-game losing streak that included their second consecutive setback to Ball State before beating 2-6 Illinois last Saturday -- in a game in which the Hoosiers, according to coach Kevin Wilson, were largely outplayed.
In that context, the sudden surge of optimism surrounding Indiana football seems silly. But circumstances have converged this year to make the impossible at least modestly plausible and to give the Hoosiers a shot at -- you might want to sit down for this one -- the Big Ten championship game.
I know, I know. But hear me out.
The two legacy powerhouses in the Leaders Division, Ohio State and Penn State, are ineligible for the postseason, and the conference as a whole has stumbled backward toward mediocrity. Indiana is 3-5 on the season and only 1-3 in Big Ten play, but with Illinois and Purdue both 0-4, the Hoosiers are in second place among the four eligible division opponents.
Wisconsin was ceded its second consecutive division title when fall camp opened, but quarterbacking issues and inconsistency on the offensive line have hurt the Badgers. And when Michigan State stopped Wisconsin's 21-game home winning streak last week and handed the Badgers their second conference loss, the Hoosiers suddenly became viable.
Not that Wilson, who had lost his first 11 Big Ten games before Saturday, is willing to admit it. "We've got a long way to go in building our team," Wilson said. "We have had very short success, very small success."
Fine, we'll do it for him. Here it is: The Hoosiers take on Iowa in Bloomington on Saturday, and the 2-2 Hawkeyes will be without their most important offensive weapon, tailback Mark Weisman, out because of an ankle injury. If Indiana wins, it sets up a showdown for the division lead the following Saturday in Bloomington against Wisconsin.
Upset the Badgers -- admittedly a long shot, given that it hasn't happened in a decade -- and Indiana would own the tie-breaker, while the Badgers would head into a difficult final two weeks, with a home game against Ohio State and a trip to Penn State, knowing it must win at least one and possibly both games. The Hoosiers, on the other hand, go to Penn State but then close their season with a winnable game at Purdue, in what might well be Boilermakers coach Danny Hope's final game.
The Hoosiers dominated Michigan State for a half before falling by four points last month, then came within three points of upsetting the unbeaten Buckeyes. Their passing offense ranks first in the Big Ten, even though they are splitting time between backup quarterbacks Cameron Coffman and Nate Sudfeld.
"We finally had the scoreboard go our way Saturday, but we still have a lot of things to clean up," said Wilson, refusing to indulge in the title-game daydream. "We're not nearly as good as we're capable of being. We preach constant, daily improvement, and the kids are doing a good job of it. But we've got a lot of work to do here."