As someone who regularly makes rushed predictions about college football teams, I’ve found the best way to minimize how often I look like a complete idiot is to pay very little attention to extremes.
Take Indiana, for example. If we eliminate what will likely be the Hoosiers’ most dominant and most pitiful efforts in 2021, we can confidently say we know basically nothing about them. That’s what happens when you play really well against a Division I-A team, the University of Idaho, after barely playing at all against an actual good team, Iowa.
Unfortunately for the Hoosiers, Saturday’s opponent skews a bit closer to the defensively unflappable Hawkeyes than the generally flappable Vandals.
The No. 8 ranked University of Cincinnati comes to Bloomington looking to add a win against a Power Five foe to its resume. Cincinnati cruised to an impressive 8-0 regular season record last year, won the American Athletic Conference title and squared off against the University of Georgia in the Peach Bowl.
In the Peach Bowl, The Bearcats entered the fourth quarter with a 21-10 edge, but let the victory slip away after then-junior quarterback Desmond Ridder threw an incomplete pass on third down with 1:41 remaining, stopping the clock and giving the Bulldogs enough time to retake the lead.
Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell received immediate criticism for electing to pass rather than run on a crucial possession when it appeared all the Bearcats needed to do to win was drain the clock. It was probably the most maligned coaching decision of the entire bowl season until Indiana head coach Tom Allen asked then-sophomore quarterback Jack Tuttle to throw 45 passes with a separated shoulder in the Outback Bowl, not 24 hours later.
At its core, Indiana versus Cincinnati is sort of a David versus David, but you can only have one underdog. Oddsmakers think that esteemed title belongs to the Hoosiers, listing the Bearcats as 4-point favorites.
Attending Indiana from out-of-state has not afforded me the financial flexibility to be a betting man, but if I were one, I’d be inclined to roll with Cincinnati.
Based on what we’ve seen, I think Cincinnati's defense can contain Indiana’s offense. Likewise, I wouldn’t be surprised if Cincinnati found ways to move the ball against Indiana’s defense and I certainly don’t expect Cincinnati to be the unit that makes a back-breaking blunder.
It’s for all of these reasons I’m beyond excited to watch the game. Let me explain.
Indiana took many people by surprise last year, not the least of which were the folks in Las Vegas. The Hoosiers went a perfect 6-0 against the spread in the regular season, meaning they always fared better than anticipated. Beyond wins and losses, I would argue the Hoosiers are much more fun to watch when the odds are not in their favor.
If I were Allen, I would run practices like Gordon Bombay in “D2: The Mighty Ducks” after his overconfident Team USA is humbled by Iceland and has to return to a gritty streetball style of training. Granted, I’m not sure what the football equivalent of the iconic “knucklepuck” is, but that’s the sort of thing offensive coordinator Nick Sheridan gets paid to figure out.
It’s possible Allen takes an entirely opposite approach and encourages his team to think of themselves as the dominant force in Saturday’s contest. This is merely what I, a 20-year-old who twice applied to be a freshman mentor in high school and was twice rejected, would do to motivate a large group of young people.
Regardless, whether or not it’s intentional, the underdog mentality is at the core of what Allen has built at Indiana. Throughout his tenure, the Hoosiers have entered plenty of matchups like a youth baseball squad that showed up to the diamond and saw the other team wearing brand-new uniforms with the players’ names on the back.
Indiana lost plenty of those contests — Penn State and Michigan State in 2019 or Ohio State in 2020 — but I’m willing to accept the possibility of a tough, narrow loss if it means seeing a fantastic game.
After all, win or lose, the on-field product in each of those heartbreaking defeats was as much a treat as orange slices and Rice Krispie treats after a Little League battle royale.