This is the time for Indiana University football to shine, to slam-dunk doubters into the bottom of a lake and hold their heads under water as they to establish a higher level of standing in the college football firmament.
This has been a notable season for Hoosiers football, and the No. 7 national ranking supports that. So do wins over Penn State, Michigan, Michigan State and Wisconsin.
Losing by a touchdown to Ohio State was nothing to be ashamed of, either. But then, IU gets sent to the Outback Bowl, where the menu probably includes the bloomin’ onion as the specialty of the house and the opponent is Mississippi, a team with a 4-5 record.
While IU coach Tom Allen has been determined to be a gracious guest, really, being stacked up against a losing team in a bowl is one of those no-respect deals that is kind of irritating.
[sc:text-divider text-divider-title=”Story continues below gallery” ]Click here to purchase photos from this gallery
It has been obvious for many years that the college bowl season has devolved into a ridiculous parody of what it was intended to be — a reward for a good season. There were supposed to be 43 bowls this year.
That accounts for 86 teams in the postseason, lined up in events nobody has ever heard of with likely TV audience sizes of middle-of-the-night reruns.
Then came the COVID-19 pandemic, and any pretense of making matchups that were intriguing and meaningful was abandoned. A dozen bowls were ditched. Teams were not required to win six games to participate in the others, partially because it wasn’t a sure thing teams would even play six games.
So now, there are teams like Mississippi with losing records competing in bowl games. That’s pretty embarrassing.
Given how few times across 122 seasons of football play IU has been invited to a bowl game, any invitation to dance is welcome. This season, after going 6-1 in the Big Ten, a bowl invitation was particularly deserved.
For a program that has played in just 14 bowl games, including the always-revered Insight Bowl and the Foster Farms Bowl, bowls of any stripe matter.
The Hoosiers have outscored foes 31-19 this season, and the defense has received numerous accolades, including just the other day when Tiawan Mullen became the first cornerback in school history chosen first-team All-American, his honor from the Football Writers Association of America.
Defense could be the big thing in this game. Although the Rebels haven’t won often, they have scored 40 points a game. The reason they haven’t won more often is because they have also allowed 40 points a game.
Indiana is more balanced, though IU was more explosive before quarterback Michael Penix Jr. was injured and replaced by Jack Tuttle. Still only barely experienced taking game snaps, there is significant pressure on Tuttle to run the offense smoothly.
He did that in the big win over Wisconsin in early December, but that has been his only full game. IU had a canceled Old Oaken Bucket Purdue game canceled and a coronavirus-imposed layoff since then.
During that intermission, Tuttle knew his status and how he had rolled with it in the victory.
“I think that game has improved me so much,” Tuttle said the other day. “I gained so much confidence. I can say we’re itching to play.”
Ole Miss’ chief weapon is its QB, Matt Corral, who has completed 71% of his passes for nearly 3,000 yards and 27 touchdowns.
Seven Indiana defenders received postseason recognition, from first team to honorable mention, in the Big Ten. That makes the unit a star-studded cast. Besides Mullen’s national nod, linebacker Matt McFadden was a third-team The Associated Press All-American.
Indiana has more riding on this bowl than Mississippi. In most ways, this was a forgettable season for the Rebels, but a special one for IU. The Hoosiers lost a bowl game by one point last year, and players know the program has not won a bowl in 29 years, longer than they have been alive.
They have been making points of emphasis by scoring points this year, and they want to keep that up.
“Winning a bowl game here is super important for us,” Tuttle said. “We want to finish this season off strong.”
Allen, architect of a steady Indiana football resurgence, knows well that it is valuable to be in any bowl game. He has sold the importance well. the same way he sold IU football to these guys when they were recruits and there wasn’t much to sell except for promises and possibilities.
“They understand what we’re trying to build,” Allen said. “They want to be part of the team that gets the first bowl win in 29 years. It means something to them.”
More important than a 4-5 record written next to Ole Miss’ name are the words “Bowl victory” written next to Indiana’s.