One year after IU football played a conference-only season and finished with a 6-2 record, the Hoosiers are preparing for a full season that kicks off Sept. 4 against Iowa.
Before the first game, the Indiana Daily Student football reporters share their predictions and analysis for the upcoming season.
Most Valuable Player
Patrick Felts: Let’s not overthink this: It’s junior Michael Penix Jr. Quarterback is the most important position on the field, and there might not be a more important quarterback in the Big Ten than Penix. He put up elite numbers prior to tearing his ACL last season, including a 491-yard outing against Ohio State, good for second-most passing yards in a game in school history. There’s a night and day difference between the Hoosiers with Penix on the field and without him. Every hope and dream of success IU football fans have for this season revolves around No. 9, and for very good reason.
Evan Gerike: There’s no way I can pretend it’s anyone other than Penix. The junior quarterback is as dynamic as they come in college football and he elevates IU to another level when he’s under center. If he’s not team MVP come January, that means he’s not under center, and IU has more serious issues to deal with than the IDS reporters predicting the MVP wrong.
Bradley Hohulin: The answer is obviously Penix. Still, saying you have a top-five quarterback in Penix is like claiming you’re a millionaire when your entire net worth is in cryptocurrency. Until I can pay my rent with Bitcoin and Penix goes more than six games without a devastating injury, I’ll bite my tongue. That’s why my MVP selection is the entire offensive line. For the Hoosiers to meet expectations, the line simply has to do everything in its power to prevent so much as a sneeze from a defensive lineman touching Penix.
Luke Christopher Norton: It looks as though the four of us are singing in tune on Penix being the MVP. Teams at the collegiate and professional levels have learned in recent years that quarterbacks — not defense — are what it takes to get over the hump and win. Having one of the best quarterbacks in the country with two years of starting experience will certainly help IU when it comes to winning.
Breakout player of the year
Felts: The first thing that comes to mind for most IU fans when thinking of junior wide receiver Miles Marshall is the wide-open drop against Wisconsin last season, but Marshall was an incredibly solid and consistent player for this team in 2020 and is poised for a breakout 2021. He finished second on the team with 15.3 yards per catch last season and led the team in receiving yards in two games. He should thrive in what will likely be an expanded role this season.
Gerike: There’s a fun, fresh position on the IU defense called the bull, and we don’t know who’s going to start in that spot yet. But that’s the most likely spot for a breakout on defense because of the scheme new defensive coordinator Charlton Warren is planning to run. As of the first depth chart, senior Alfred Bryant was No. 1, but junior D.K. Bonhomme played snaps last season and could earn his way back to that job. Either way, I’m looking for a lot of havoc to come out of IU’s own personal Khalil Mack.
Hohulin: What began as an inside joke about sophomore running back Tim Baldwin Jr. sounding like the name of an accountant quickly blossomed into full-blown adoration on the IDS football beat. Baldwin was a deceptively lucrative asset last year, posting a team-best for running backs with 6.4 yards per carry. I expect his increase in first-team repetitions during the offseason to pay dividends in 2021 as his share of touches expands like a meticulously cultivated Roth IRA.
Norton: It’s ultimately going to end up being whoever gets the most carries at running back. Some onlookers have taken a look at IU’s running backs and believe they’ll work by committee, and this will probably be true until the Hoosiers find the one guy who proves he can do it all. A former NFL position coach will certainly help them find and further develop that guy, whoever he ends up being. Right now, given his experience and past with running backs coach Deland McCullough, I'd say it's Stephen Carr.
Newcomer of the year
Felts: I don’t know how much he’ll play this season, but I really think redshirt freshman running back Charlie Spegal can be a contributor for this team. Despite being a walk-on, Spegal is the all-time leading rusher in the history of Indiana high school football, winning the 2019 Indiana Mr. Football and two state championships at New Palestine High School. Coaches have praised Spegal in the offseason, and coupled with being a historically dominant player the last time he played competitive football and a relatively open running back position, Spegal has as good of a case as any walk-on to contribute in 2021 and beyond.
Gerike: Graduate student wide receiver D.J. Matthews has really impressed in fall camp. He transferred from Florida State University during the season last year, so he’s about as old as a newcomer can be, but he’s still yet to see action for IU. With Whop Philyor off playing with the Minnesota Vikings, Matthews will get his starts in the slot. He’s also incredibly slippery as a kick or punt returner and holds Florida State’s return-yards record.
Hohulin: Graduate transfer Ryder Anderson joins the defensive line just eight months after he helped the University of Mississippi hold IU to its second-lowest point total in the Outback Bowl, which ended up as a 26-20 win for Ole Miss. It’s like the saying goes — if you can beat them pretty convincingly, join them. Anderson should be able to plug holes up front by taking advantage of the fact that he is a 6-foot-6, 266-pound human, which are notoriously difficult to run through.
Norton: I agree with Evan on Matthews, who will have the tough task of replacing one of the better players — certainly the best name — on last season’s team in Whop Philyor. The entire wide receivers room will need to show up on game days, but Matthews has come as advertised from Florida State. If you think about it, he’s already gone up against a top secondary nationally in IU’s own defense, so he should be plenty prepared for Big Ten action.
Defensive player of the year
Felts: The first two names that come to mind on this defense are senior linebacker Micah McFadden and junior cornerback Tiawan Mullen, and for good reason. But the most important player on IU’s defense in 2021 could be senior husky Marcelino McCrary-Ball. Returning for a sixth season after missing all of 2020 with a torn ACL, McCrary-Ball adds both versatility and experience to a defense that excelled in his absence a season ago. His ability to play both safety and linebacker at a high level makes him one of the most unique players in the entire sport and an extremely valuable part of IU’s defense.
Gerike: I made the mistake of deciding not to pick Mullen last year because it felt too easy of a choice. I won’t do it again. Mullen was a first-team All-American in 2020, the first Hoosier cornerback to achieve the feat. He’s outperformed all expectations through two seasons, and as those expectations catch up to him, I expect him to turn it up another level. If he plays like last year, expect to hear his name called early in the NFL Draft.
Hohulin: If you produced a television series about a high school football team and needed a clearly fully grown man to play the 16-year-old team captain, you would cast McFadden. He was my pick for DPOY last year, and unlike the 58 times he wrestled opposing players to the turf in 2020, he never let me down. It’s not that tricky. You have to tackle the guys wearing the other uniforms to stop them, and McFadden does that wonderfully.
Norton: IU has a strong secondary, and Mullen is its best member after being named a first-team All-American in 2020. As colleges move more and more toward emphasis on passing, an elite cornerback is becoming an essential cornerstone to a great defense, and IU has one in Mullen. Beyond this, coaches have noticed Mullen’s increasing presence as a leader throughout the summer and into fall camp as he enters his third year as a starter.
Game to watch
Felts: I don’t need to remind you what happened when IU played Penn State a season ago, and it’s not hard to imagine Penn State has revenge on their minds. The two teams should be fairly even this year, with the Hoosiers ranked No. 17 and the Nittany Lions No. 19 in the preseason AP Top 25. Given the conference standing implications and raucous home crowd at Beaver Stadium with fans back this season, this should be an incredible game of football in October.
Gerike: I would love to see the look on the faces of those who scheduled the University of Cincinnati game when I tell them we’re less than a month out from what might be a top-10 matchup. I’ve been excited for this game since I first saw it on the schedule last year. Penix versus Desmond Ridder? A team who thinks it got screwed by the Big Ten versus a team who thinks it got screwed by the College Football Playoff Committee? Sign me up.
Hohulin: Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck commands a team looking for redemption after a lackluster 2020 season. Their offense should be great. The defense should be present at most games, barring any issues with the team bus. Honestly, I’m just excited to see the raw energy between Allen and Fleck. IU and Minnesota don’t play nearly often enough to have a rivalry, but that won’t stop me from calling this Nov. 20 matchup the Believe in Yourself Bowl.
Norton: Had the Hoosiers defeated Ohio State last year, they wouldn’t have had to endure the “will the Big Ten stick to its rules and put IU in the championship game?” kerfuffle. Chase is Tom Allen’s one word for this season, and if you’re chasing anybody in the Big Ten East, it’s Ohio State. IU’s strong secondary against two future first round NFL draft picks in wide receivers Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson will be a sight to behold. The Oct. 23 date of the matchup also provides the Buckeyes’ quarterback C.J. Stroud plenty of time to get into the flow of Ohio State head coach Ryan Day’s offense before facing the Hoosiers
Felts: I’ll be optimistic and go 10-2, losses to Ohio State and Penn State, finishing second in the Big Ten and making a New Year’s Six bowl game. They’ll face stiff challenges from Iowa, Cincinnati and Michigan, among others, but I expect IU to get the job done in those contests. However, if they somehow beat Ohio State for the first time since the 1980s, there’s no reason why this team can’t make the College Football Playoff. It’s impossible to predict whether or not they would win a hypothetical bowl game without knowing the opponent, and given IU’s track record in bowl games, it’s probably for the best that I don’t attempt to guess at what will happen.
Gerike: This is finally the year the #9WINDIANA prophecy comes true. The Hoosiers’ climb feels inevitable at this point, but with a very tricky schedule coming up early in the season – Iowa and Cincinnati, with Idaho sandwiched in – I think they’ll get there a bit of an unorthodox way. IU will close out the regular season 8-4 before finally breaking a long bowl drought.
Hohulin: It’s a lot to ask that Penn State and Michigan are as truly awful as they were when IU played them last season. Then you have perennially solid Iowa, mid-major titan Cincinnati and stupidly amazing Ohio State. If I make the statistically unsupported prediction that Penix stays healthy, I’ll take nine regular season wins. Throw in a bowl loss to a Southeastern Conference school and you’ve got a 9-4 record that should elate anyone who started watching Hoosier football before 2019.
Norton: Personally, I absolutely despise record predictions because you can never truly tell what a team will be until you see them in an actual game, but I'll provide one in spite of this. It’s a rather tall order to expect Michigan and Penn State to be the same lost teams they were in 2020, but IU’s rise cannot be dismissed as a fluke. #9WINDIANA may seem like a mere echo to some, but it should ring true this season. I think IU closes out the season at 9-3 before finally getting over the bowl game hurdle with a win to put the Hoosiers at 10-3.