We're counting down the weeks until kickoff by profiling a different Big Ten team each week. Today, the Indiana Hoosiers are up.
There are two main questions, surrounding this Hoosier squad. One, will they have Kellen Lewis back from his spring suspension and two, will they have a field to play on?
The loss of Lewis could seriously damper this team's hopes of back-to-back bowl trips, as he lead them in passing and rushing yards last year, giving the Hoosiers their first bowl trip since 1993.
The field was damaged by the torrential rains earlier in June and replacement construction is under way, at the cool cost of $1,000,000, but school officials are confidant the new turf will be ready for opening kickoff.
COACHING: Bill Lynch enters his second year at the helm, after taking over last summer for the late Terry Hoeppner. Lynch lead the Hoosiers to their first winning season (7-6) in twelve years and IMO has a good chance to do it again. With all the focus in Bloomington on the hoops program, Lynch shouldn't feel any type of heat if the Hoosiers go back to their losing ways in 2008.
OFFENSE: The Hoosiers will have to replace 3 OL starters, James Hardy and possibly Lewis, but they return their top four running backs, including speedster Marcus Thigpen, who rushed for 586 yards a year ago. Freshman Darius Willis may push for some playing time, along with juniors Bryan Payton and Demetrius McCray, who each averaged over 4 yards a carry in their sophomore campaigns.
Lynch's squad will be hard pressed to replace Hardy's production and beyond Andrew Means and Ray Fisher, who combined for 100 catches and 1,041 yards last year, there is no experienced depth. This offense can only be helped though by the return of all-conference kicker Ausitn Starr, who connected on 11 of 12 field goals from 40+ yards in 2007.
DEFENSE: The defense will be anchored by Greg Middleton, a 6'3" 275lb. DE, who enjoyed a breakout season in '07 by leading the NCAA in sacks with 16. He will be joined by six other retuning starters, including the Hoosiers top two tacklers from last year, Austin Thomas and Will Peterson.
Thomas lead Indiana with 112 tackles from the strong safety spot and should get all-conference notice this year. Their corners are going to be green, but experienced safeties and quick line pressure may give them time to develop. Peterson is the leader of an experienced linebacker corps that held opponents to less than four yards a carry last season.
KEY GAME: The key game for Indiana is the Big Ten opener, at home against Sparty. The Hoosiers play three cupcakes at home to start the season and they are 1-15 in their last 16 conference openers. A 4-0 start to the season, could propel this team to a surprising conference finish.
BEST-CASE: Indiana plays eight home games this year, four of which are against W. Kentucky, Murray State, Ball State and Central Michigan. They also get Iowa and Northwestern at home, two winnable games. If the Hoosier can man up and win their OOC games, there is a good chance this team could finish at least 6-6 and go bowling once again.
WORST-CASE: If Kellen Lewis doesn't play and they are hit with a few injuries, this team could take a few steps back and go 3-8, potentially winless in the Big Ten.
I just don't see that happening though. The stars may be aligned for this squad, as both Ohio State and Michigan are not on the schedule and they have 6 winnable home games, with roadies at Minnesota and Purdue. I'm not saying it is going to be Iowa 2002, but these are mostly Hoeppner's recruits and playing for the honor of a fallen coach can give the team a great sense of purpose and this team could have a surprise year.