After five years, three months and 14 days of Big Ten membership, Nebraska finally will face Indiana in football.
Because of the Big Ten scheduling model, this Oct. 15 in Bloomington, Indiana, will mark the first conference matchup for NU and IU — more of a regional quirk than national news.
The main reason for that is the two programs’ historical success rate. Nebraska is fourth in the Football Bowl Subdivision in all-time victories with 880. (Michigan is first with 925.) Indiana is first in all-time defeats with 658, six ahead of Northwestern.
But if there were a good time for Indiana to resume playing Nebraska — the schools last met 38 years ago — it’s now.
Look at the records from last season: identical at 6-7.
At Nebraska, that put the athletic director who made an experimental hire on notice, and led coach Mike Riley to officially realize this ain’t horseshoes we’re trying to play here.
At Indiana, going 6-7 meant breaking a seven-year bowl drought. That got sixth-year coach Kevin Wilson six more years with a new contract that doubles his salary to $2.55 million annually.
This was a savvy move by Indiana A.D. Fred Glass, a sharp guy we’ve gotten to know through baseball and basketball contacts.
Glass knows that Wilson — a former offensive coordinator at Northwestern and Oklahoma — is a respected football man among his peers. Glass knows that the four coaches at Indiana before he hired Wilson lasted four years, two years, three years and five years.
As a man with two degrees from Indiana particularly would know, Hoosier football isn’t a program that can be fixed in one recruiting cycle.
So Glass has instituted stability by sticking with Wilson and shown commitment by continuing a facilities upgrade that will lead to enclosure of both end zones with training facilities and an athlete wellness center.
Indiana’s progress under Wilson has turned heads in the Big Ten.
Last season, the Hoosiers led the league in total offense, scoring offense and passing offense — a first since Ohio State did it 20 years earlier.
IU had two first-team All-Americans on the offensive line (guard Dan Feeney, tackle Jason Spriggs). That’s two more than Nebraska, a former pipeline of O-line stars, has had in the past 15 years combined.
The Hoosiers led Ohio State deep in the third quarter, were within two points of Michigan State early in the fourth quarter, were within one point of Iowa early in the fourth quarter and took Michigan to double overtime. Those four losses were to teams with a combined record of 49-8.
“As you can see, we’re just inching toward it,” Feeney said by phone from Bloomington. “This year, I think we can definitely explode and get a lot more than six wins.
“That’s what all these guys are hoping for, practicing for and playing for.”
The 6-foot-4, 311-pound Feeney turned down early entry to the NFL to see what transpires in his senior year. Many draft sites had him as the third-ranked guard in the nation.
“I got a lot of good advice from Coach Wilson and (offensive line) Coach (Greg) Frey,” Feeney said. “I felt there were more positives to staying, especially to help the team. I came into Indiana trying to turn the program around. I don’t think we’ve quite gotten there yet.”
Indiana won’t snap a string of eight straight losing seasons until Wilson fixes his leaky defense, ranked 121st, 95th, 123rd, 106th and 109th the past five years.
He just hired his third defensive coordinator in six years — actually the fifth with the title of coordinator or co-coordinator — but this looks like the best one yet by far. Tom Allen, an Indiana native, was at South Florida. The Bulls went 8-5 last year and led the surprisingly strong American Athletic Conference in fewest points allowed in league play at 19.6 a game.
Wilson makes it plain he wants Indiana to become more than a token nuisance in the Big Ten.
“I don’t like where we’re at,” he said. “We’ve had some success, but we want more. We’re going to take it from a program that’s become competitive and start making it a more winning, consistent program.”
Nebraska fans, for the first time in nearly two generations, will see in person or via television whether Indiana’s attempt to climb from the bottom of college football to the middle looks more likely than the Huskers’ attempt to climb out of the upper middle and back to the top.
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