After going 6–2 and defeating Penn State, Michigan and Michigan State in the same season for the first time in program history, Indiana still won’t have to search for skeptics. The Hoosiers will be required to deliver proof with a schedule that opens at Iowa and features a visit by Cincinnati before IU enters the Big Ten East grind.
The return of 17 starters, including dynamic quarterback Michael Penix Jr. and third-team All-America linebacker Micah McFadden, will make the journey fascinating. Head coach Tom Allen created a national buzz last season with his emotional interactions with players — and IU has gone all-in with Allen, increasing his salary to nearly $5 million through 2027. Allen has preached that IU can shake up the Big Ten East. He has the roster to do it.
Previewing Indiana's Offense for 2021
At quarterback, Penix is a proven playmaker who can make all the throws. His release is quick. His arm is strong. His accuracy is solid. His decision-making is mature. There is one question Penix has not been able to shake: Can he stay healthy? He has failed to finish all three seasons at IU with leg and shoulder injuries that required surgery. He missed spring ball while recovering from a torn ACL but is expected to be ready in August. Jack Tuttle was a more accurate passer (61 percent), but the offense down-shifted toward shorter passes as Tuttle averaged 5.0 yards per attempt.
Sampson James will get first call to replace durable running back Stevie Scott III, but the addition of USC transfer Stephen Carr has added another talented and proven option into the mix. James is faster with more breakaway speed but must improve his pass-blocking and ability to run between the tackles. If James falters, Tim Baldwin Jr. has the speed and cutback ability to earn more time. David Ellis remains a third-down option while splitting time between halfback and receiver.
The receiving corps remains a strength. Ty Fryfogle blossomed as one of the top receivers in the Big Ten, averaging 19.5 yards per catch while contributing 200-yard games against Ohio State and Michigan State. He was outstanding making catches in crowds and gaining yards after the catch. Sophomore Miles Marshall had a solid spring and is a top candidate for improvement, as is sophomore Jacolby Hewitt. D.J. Matthews, a four-star recruit in 2017, transferred from Florida State, where he had 84 receptions and five touchdowns in three seasons as a slot receiver. Tight end Peyton Hendershot needs to return to his form of two seasons ago, when he had 52 catches for 622 yards.
IU’s offensive line needs an upgrade. The Hoosiers ranked 12th in the Big Ten in rushing and averaged only 3.3 yards per carry. Four starters return with right tackle Matthew Bedford the most accomplished blocker. Keep an eye on Zach Carpenter, a transfer from Michigan who started two games for the Wolverines as a redshirt freshman. He could start at center or guard.
Previewing Indiana's Defense for 2021
Charlton Warren arrived from Georgia to replace Kane Wommack as the defensive coordinator after Wommack became the head coach at South Alabama. The Hoosiers will continue to use the 4-2-5 scheme that Allen prefers. After helping Ole Miss stuff the IU offense in the Outback Bowl, Ryder Anderson transferred from the Rebels to Indiana. He’ll team with James Head Jr. and Michael Ziemba for a talented trio at defensive end. Veterans Demarcus Elliott and Sio Nofoagatoto’a should handle the interior. The Hoosiers led the Big Ten with 25 sacks.
McFadden has been the best Indiana linebacker in at least three decades, a sideline-to-sideline force who never takes plays off. Cam Jones is faster and sometimes more disruptive. Marcelino McCrary-Ball returns from a torn ACL at the hybrid Husky position where he started 38 games in four seasons. James Miller and Aaron Casey are proven reserves who make linebacker the strongest unit on the defense.
Tiawan Mullen’s ability to deliver unrelenting man-to-man coverage convinces most quarterbacks to look the other way. But Reese Taylor and Jaylin Williams are solid at the other corner, combining for five interceptions in 2020. Jamar Johnson’s decision to leave early for the NFL created a void at free safety, but veteran Raheem Layne is expected to return from an injury as his replacement, although he will convert from cornerback. Devon Matthews had an excellent season at strong safety.
Previewing Indiana's Specialists for 2021
Charles Campbell, voted second-team All-Big Ten, made a string of clutch kicks, including three field goals from at least 50 yards. James Evans arrives from New Zealand to handle the punting. Matthews returned punts for three seasons at Florida State, including one for a touchdown. Ellis and Hewitt should return kickoffs again.
The Hoosiers enjoyed a magical season in 2020. They rode the momentum of the last-play win over Penn State to a 4–0 start and national recognition. That will be difficult to recreate. But the addition of three solid transfers as well as the return of proven performers like Penix, McFadden, Fryfogle and Mullen position this team to be more talented. If Penix can stay healthy and the running game improves, Indiana should deliver another Top 25 season and finish in the top three of the Big Ten East.
National Ranking: 21
Podcast: Top 25 Breakdown and Predictions