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'I want to prove I belong': Outback Bowl is final statement opportunity for Indiana football

Penn State was luck. Michigan was the Wolverines' ineptitude. A near 28-point comeback against No. 3 Ohio State that fell one drive short was an aberration. And Michael Penix’s injury would cripple the team.

That was all before the first College Football Playoff rankings were a week old. During the best Indiana football season in 50 years, national disrespect has emerged as a common theme. On Sunday, a one-loss Big Ten team was left out of a New Year's Six game. The No. 7 team in the nation, according to the AP poll, was then passed up by the Citrus Bowl and will now play a 4-5 Ole Miss team in Tampa Bay's Outback Bowl.

Indiana celebrates during its win over Maryland on November 28th in Bloomington. (Kurt Spitler/HN)

Always optimistic, IU head Tom Allen sees the slight as just one more obstacle thrown at the Hoosiers.

“I just feel with my whole heart this is the next opportunity for this program to prove who we are,” Allen said. “To stare adversity in the face and just fight, fight, fight for each other.”

The opponent is not at Indiana’s level based on record and the bowl game is likely at a lower echelon than deserved. But the Outback Bowl is a chance for Indiana to continue making history.

For starters, the game offers Indiana a valuable recruiting opportunity. The Hoosiers will play their second straight bowl game in Florida, a state that Allen has made the center of his recruiting.

Allen also has plenty of ties to Tampa. His head coaching career started at Temple Heights Christian High School in Tampa Bay where similar to Indiana he turned around a long struggling program. Allen would later return to Tampa to be the defensive coordinator at South Florida (USF) the year before he left for Bloomington.

The return to Tampa will also be a return home for many Hoosiers including Whop Philyor, Juwan Burgess and Penix. Their families and friends will be able to visit them and watch them play in-person. For the first time all season IU will play in front of the public. Raymond James Stadium will have 20% capacity, meaning a little over 13,000 fans permitted.

“I'm so excited our fans get to come to this game,” Allen said. “I hope they come in droves and support this team like they never have before.”

Lastly, the opponent will offer some unique competitive challenges. Ole Miss, in its first year under Lane Kiffin, has been one of the most entertaining teams in the country. Led by talented quarterback Matt Corral and wide receiver Elijah Moore, the Rebels are averaging 562 yards and 41 points a game. They will be a stiff challenge for Kane Wommack in his final game as IU defensive coordinator. 

The Rebels defense? The reason Ole Miss has a losing record in the SEC. Five of the Rebels nine opponents have scored at least 40 points.

No matter how Ole Miss plays on Jan. 2 a win would be historic for IU. The Hoosiers have lost five straight bowl games dating back to the 1991 victory over Baylor in the Copper Bowl in Arizona. The Outback Bowl is a chance for the Hoosiers to excoriate another demon of their horrid football history.

“You have conviction, you have purpose, you have things you live by and the circumstances don’t dictate how that plays itself out,” Allen said. “To me that’s where this program has a chance to show who we are, on a national stage for everybody to watch, one more time how good this Indiana football team is.”

Eyeballs will be on the game. Unlike the Citrus Bowl, which is being played on the same day as the College Football Playoff, the Outback Bowl will only be competing for viewers with the Gator Bowl in a Saturday afternoon slot.

IU hopes the whole country is watching. The actions by college football’s decision makers have shown they do not believe Indiana belongs among the nation's elite teams. Former IU Athletic Director Fred Glass, who hired Tom Allen, agrees.

“Our program, our coach and our kids got done in by the good-old-boy Big Ten football power structure,” Glass said in an interview with the Indianapolis Star. “There are people who don’t want Indiana to be good in football.”

The disrespect reminded Tom Allen of an experience he had while he was special teams coordinator and linebackers coach at Ole Miss. Allen, just three years removed from the defensive coordinator position at NAIA school Lambuth College, was interviewing for another coaching job when those interviewing him openly wondered how he got to the SEC. That doubt has stuck with Allen.

"I want to prove I belong every single day," Allen said.

The Outback Bowl comes full circle for Allen. Jan. 2 is the next major step for him and Indiana Football to prove they belong among the best college football teams in the country. Allen believes they will be prepared.

“This football team will be ready when we take the field on January 2nd at 12:30 in Tampa, Florida. Period.”

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