Indiana Daily Student

COLUMN: Increased pressure in Indiana football’s schedule shows the Big Ten’s need to dump divisions

Then-freshman quarterback Donaven McCulley covers his face after fumbling the opening snap against Rutgers on Nov. 13, 2021, at Memorial Stadium.
Then-freshman quarterback Donaven McCulley covers his face after fumbling the opening snap against Rutgers on Nov. 13, 2021, at Memorial Stadium.

Around this time last year, Indiana football fans anxiously awaited the start of one of the program’s most hyped-up seasons in the modern era. Coming in with an AP preseason ranking of No. 17 and key starters returning, many fans guessed that a Rose Bowl appearance was not out of the question.

Fast forward a year later, and fans’ hopes have diminished to winning at least one conference game. 

Following a dismal 2021 season in which the Hoosiers faced injuries, untimely ejections, poor strategizing and a lack of execution, the highest that Indiana could go was a 2-10 record and 0-9 performance in conference play.

Now, changes are bound to ensue after plenty of roster shake-ups for the oncoming season. Many players graduated, transferred or left for the NFL draft, such as fifth-round pick linebacker Micah McFadden. While losses like that of the former All-American sting, it may be made up for by Indiana’s 25th nationally ranked recruiting class and solid additions from the transfer market.

The Hoosiers saw players come and go through the transfer portal, the most notable departure being former star quarterback Michael Penix Jr. However, the team’s fresh faces are expected to make an immediate impact. Former University of Missouri quarterback Connor Bazelak, the 2020 SEC Co-Freshman of the Year, is the favorite to take over the starting role from what was a revolving door in 2021.

Still, with all changes considered, Indiana’s schedule leaves little room for error if expectations for a bowl game remain intact.

Indiana’s season starts with several games favoring the Hoosiers. The season opener against Big Ten opponent Illinois should see Indiana start 1-0 if all things go as expected. At the very least, it should not be a repeat of their crushing 34-6 loss at Iowa to open the 2021 season.

The Hoosiers’ next two games against the University of Idaho and Western Kentucky University shouldn’t be too challenging. If they are, you might want to look away for the rest of the season, considering those two opponents gave Indiana its only victories in 2021.

Indiana closes out non-conference play at the University of Cincinnati before facing its main dilemma: Big Ten divisions are unbalanced.

As the current format stands, each Big Ten team faces all six of its division opponents and three opponents from the other division. The problem is that the Big Ten East is much, much better. Unfortunately, Indiana happens to be in the Big Ten East.

Aside from Indiana, the East contains Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State, Maryland and Rutgers. The West is made up of Purdue, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Nebraska and Northwestern.

Looking at the Hoosiers’ schedule, they will face three top-10 teams from the end of last season: Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State. In addition to the season opener against Illinois, Indiana will face Purdue in the battle for the Old Oaken Bucket and Nebraska as its other opponents from the West.

A solution to the problem is simple and feasible: eliminate divisions. If geographical concerns were a reason to keep divisions together, it isn’t extreme enough to skew the competitive balance this much. If you disagree, wait until USC and UCLA join in a few years. Whatever measures it takes to get it done should be taken, not just for the good of Indiana, but for all of the Big Ten.

It isn’t impossible, just improbable, for Indiana to be competitive at a higher level. Say what you will about the Hoosiers’ talent or chances to hang with some of the biggest names in college football, but they should at least be given a fairer chance.

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