Tom Allen strung together four words not usually associated with his Indiana football program.
“A lot of expectations,” he said.
Hoosier hype is well-founded this year, though it’s hard to imagine anyone dethroning preseason No. 4 Ohio State as king of the Big Ten. The Buckeyes have won four straight conference titles, played in the national championship game last season and are expected to keep rolling even with an inexperienced quarterback.
But if anyone is poised to challenge Ohio State in the Big Ten East, 17th-ranked Indiana is a trendy pick with the return of quarterback Michael Penix Jr.
The Hoosiers were a revelation last season, going 6-1 before their Outback Bowl loss to Mississippi and being ranked in the top 10 for six weeks. That one regular-season loss was at home to Ohio State, 42-35, after Indiana was down 35-7 in the third quarter.
Indiana brings back the core of a defense that led the Big Ten with 25 sacks and had 17 interceptions. The key for the offense is keeping the dynamic, injury prone Penix healthy. He missed the last two games with a torn ACL. He’s among eight returning offensive starters, a group that includes Big Ten receiver of the year Ty Fryfogle.
Allen said his hope is that success can breed success. Remember, this is a program that hasn’t had three straight winning seasons — overall or in conference play — since the mid-1940s.
“That’s been the challenge, to go from believing — and I believe we have a team that believes — to now expecting a certain outcome on game day,” he said.
The biggest question for Ohio State is at quarterback, where redshirt freshman C.J. Stroud has won the job to replace Justin Fields. Stroud, who has never thrown a pass in a college game, will be surrounded by best-in-the-nation talent at receiver and on the line. The defense will have new starters at linebacker but is experienced up front and in the secondary.
No. 19 Penn State and Michigan are looking to bounce back after disappointing seasons, Maryland and Rutgers appear to be teams on the rise and Michigan State is looking to find traction under second-year coach Mel Tucker.
Wisconsin is the favorite in the West after going 4-3 and finishing third in the division last year. The No. 12 Badgers had two games canceled because of COVID-19 issues and were plagued by injuries. They return quarterback Graham Mertz and plenty of experience at other positions.
No. 18 Iowa enters the season on a six-game win streak, has a second-year starting quarterback in Spencer Petras and should have another strong defense if it can restock its line.
Northwestern, which made a surprise run to the Big Ten championship game last year, had two players taken in the first round of the NFL draft and ranks near the bottom of the FBS in returning production.
Minnesota and Nebraska have fourth-year starting quarterbacks in Tanner Morgan and Adrian Martinez, respectively, and are looking to move up.
Purdue and Illinois will battle to stay out of the West basement. Jeff Brohm’s Boilermakers showed promise his first two years and not so much the last two. Illinois is looking for a fresh start with Bret Bielema.
Offense: Minnesota RB Mohamed Ibrahim averaged a school-record 153.7 yards per game and is the nation’s top returning rusher. Indiana QB Penix passed for a Big Ten-leading 274.2 yards per game. Purdue WR David Bell and Ohio State WR Chris Olave each averaged 104 yards per game.
Defense: Northwestern S Brandon Joseph intercepted five passes and was an AP first-team All-American. Indiana LB Micah McFadden led the Big Ten with six sacks. Rutgers LB Olakunle Fatukasi’s 11.2 tackles per game led conference and were most by a Scarlet Knight since 1999.
Bret Bielema is back in the Big Ten after eight years away. He takes over an Illinois program that has had nine straight losing seasons under three coaches.
“I just want to fill this stadium,” he said. “I know people don’t put money and support into something they don’t believe in, and I want to show them what they can believe in.”
Bielema was 68-24 at Wisconsin from 2006-12. He coached five seasons at Arkansas and was an NFL assistant for three before replacing Lovie Smith at Illinois.
Bielema said he and athletic director Josh Whitman haven’t discussed specific goals for this season.
“He’s brought me here to build sustained success for a long time,” Bielema said.
MAKE OR BREAK SEASONS
The pressure is cranked up another notch on Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh and Nebraska’s Scott Frost.
Harbaugh signed a contract extension through 2025, but the new deal cuts his base pay and promises more only if he reaches benchmarks like the Big Ten championship game. He’s 49-22 in six years at Michigan but he’s yet to win the East and has lost four games each of the last two seasons.
Frost is 12-20 in three years and under contract through 2026. He goes into this season under the cloud of an NCAA investigation into an allegation he used analysts as on-field coaches. He also is suspected of conducting improper workouts last year at a time they weren’t allowed because of the pandemic.
MARK YOUR CALENDARS
Ohio State at Minnesota, Sept. 2; Indiana at Iowa, Sept. 4; Penn State at Wisconsin, Sept. 4; Iowa at Iowa State, Sept. 11; Oregon at Ohio State, Sept. 11; Washington at Michigan, Sept. 11; Nebraska at Oklahoma, Sept. 18; Cincinnati at Indiana, Sept. 18; Auburn at Penn State, Sept. 18; Wisconsin vs. Notre Dame, at Soldier Field, Chicago, Sept. 25; Wisconsin at Illinois, Oct. 9; Ohio State at Indiana, Oct. 23; Iowa at Wisconsin, Oct. 30; Iowa at Nebraska, Nov. 26; Ohio State at Michigan, Nov. 27; Wisconsin at Minnesota, Nov. 27.
East: Ohio State, Indiana, Penn State, Michigan, Rutgers, Maryland, Michigan State.
West: Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Northwestern, Nebraska, Illinois, Purdue.
Champion: Ohio State.