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Epstein: This Saturday, temper your expectations

Indiana football will play its first regular-season Top 10 matchup in school history on Saturday. The Hoosiers’ only other Top 10 matchup was the 1967 Rose Bowl when No. 4 Indiana fell to O.J. Simpson and No. 1 Southern California. 

IU’s game will have historical and brand significance. This does not mean Indiana fans should be anticipating a victory in Columbus. 

This is not to diminish No. 9 Indiana’s talent and remarkable season. The Hoosiers are having their best season since that 1967 year. The defense is elite. The offense has some of the best playmakers in the country. But the Hoosiers are not winning the national championship. The second-worst Power Five FBS program in history (only Wake Forest has a worse all-time winning percentage) has not won a bowl game since 1991. They are not ready to win a Big Ten Championship.

Ohio State has won three Big Ten Championships in a row. The Buckeyes were 23 yards away from defeating Clemson and playing in the National Championship last year. OSU won the inaugural College Football Playoff in 2014.

Ty Fryfogle during last year’s game against Ohio State in Bloomington. (Jared Rigdon/HN)

The Buckeyes are a program on a different level than fellow powerhouses Michigan and Penn State. Michigan has not won a Big Ten Championship since 2004. Penn State has won one Big Ten Championship since 2008. 

And that is not even considering the historic ineptitude of both programs this year. During the Urban Meyer and Ryan Day era Ohio State has thoroughly out-recruited, outplayed and out-achieved any other college football program north of the Ohio River.

This year the Buckeyes have 14 players who were five-star prospects on their roster. Only Georgia, Alabama and Clemson are also in double digits. Michigan has two five stars. Penn State has one.

Recruiting rankings are fickle but it’s just another reminder of the gap during the College Football Playoff era of Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and everyone else. Occasionally a school puts everything together for a year to play with the big boys. LSU and Georgia in recent years. Notre Dame appears to be the school in 2020.

And no, Indiana is not putting together the magic of a 2019 LSU or even 2015 Michigan State. Maybe in five years. Counterpoint? Upsets happen every year. That is what makes college football great.

Let’s look at the recent upsets of the Buckeyes. Ohio State has two losses in the Big Ten since 2017. In 2018, the Buckeyes ran into the magic of Tyler Trent in West Lafayette. Purdue blew out Ohio State on a night bigger than sports:

In 2017, Ohio State never showed up to Iowa City and got whipped by Kirk Ferentz’s Iowa Hawkeyes. The Buckeyes were coming off a thrilling one-point victory over No. 2 Penn State the week before. 

Saturday will not be a trap game. The Buckeyes have had a week off due to a canceled game with Maryland after a few Terrapins tested positive for COVID-19. And the rest of the Buckeyes’ schedule? Not exactly a murderers row. Illinois, Michigan State, Michigan. In fact, Indiana is Ohio State’s last hurdle before the Big Ten Championship game and another College Football Playoff appearance.

So Saturday’s game is not the biggest IU football game in 50 years. That was against Penn State or Michigan. Games the Hoosiers could plausibly win and change the course of a long struggling program.

A loss (or win) Saturday will not change that. The Hoosiers’ game in two weeks at Madison against No. 10 Wisconsin might be to play in a New Year’s Six bowl game. But even with a loss against the Badgers, Indiana could play in a prestigious New Years Day Florida bowl game against a big-name SEC school. It would be a major step forward and a historic accomplishment for Tom Allen’s program.

On Saturday the Hoosiers will need to play their A+ game, a step above their level against Michigan. And even then IU will need some uncharacteristic Buckeyes’ mistakes that have been nonexistent in the first year and a half of Ryan Day’s tenure. Or a miracle could happen. That’s what makes sports great. 

Stevie Scott during last year’s loss to Ohio State in Bloomington. (Jared Rigdon/HN)

The last Indiana win over Ohio State in Columbus was 1987. It is considered the “darkest day” in Buckeyes football history. A win by IU on Saturday would be the greatest win in Indiana football history. It would be a historic and unprecedented upset and set the Hoosiers up for a run at the Big Ten Championship and the College Football Playoff. Amongst the absurdity of 2020, that sentence ranks high on the list of ridiculousness.

Enjoy Saturday, Hoosier fans. The game and national platform of playing one of the biggest games of the Big Ten season will be a major boost for the program’s national reputation. For the first time in the mass media age of the 21st century the eyes of the college football world will be on Indiana football. It’s a testament to Tom Allen’s program. 

If a miracle occurs in Columbus, go crazy (socially distanced with masks of course.) David rarely defeats Goliath. Don’t expect Saturday to be that day.

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