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Indiana is starting to associate itself with the best. In 2021, it has to prove it belongs

Indiana will have a chance to see how it stacks up against one of the greatest college football programs for the first time since 1991. 

But this opportunity won’t come until the next decade, as Indiana has scheduled a home-and-home series with Notre Dame for the 2030 and 2031 seasons. It’s impossible to predict the trajectory of two programs with 10 years between now and then, but it's a telling sign of what head coach Tom Allen is building. 

"I'm looking forward to facing one of the most storied programs in the history of college football," Allen said. "It's tremendous for the state of Indiana and for our fans, and it will be a great opportunity for our players."

Allen and Athletic Director Scott Dolson are starting to set their sights higher than scheduling in-state opponents like Ball State or Indiana State. They believe the Hoosiers belong on the same field as the top programs in the country.

And in 2021, Indiana has a chance to prove that.

With momentum building on the recruiting trail and on the field, Allen and his team have an opportunity to show that the hype, confidence and belief are warranted.

Allen has exuded confidence during the two weeks of spring practice that just concluded. After all, it is the genuine belief that he will turn Indiana into a Big Ten contender that has gotten unprecedented talent to come to Bloomington.

On April 13, Daeh McCollough committed to Indiana, and would become the highest rated recruit in program history if he signs at his current ranking. McCollough is the son of new running backs coach Deland McCollough who left the Kansas City Chiefs to come to Bloomington. That career switch alone tells you all you need to know about Allen’s ability to create belief in the minds of others.

Daeh is currently rated as a four-star recruit in the class of 2023 and the No. 78 player in the country. Daeh is the sixth-ranked safety in the country according to 247Sports, and chose Indiana over Arizona State, Arkansas, Florida, Michigan and Penn State, among others. 

Allen lost five total players with starting experience in 2020, and if his rehab stays on track, a quarterback in Michael Penix Jr. that could be the Big Ten’s best with the departure of former Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields to the NFL. Allen has brought in a proven defensive coordinator in Charlton Warren, and has done well in the transfer portal to add experience and depth in needed areas.

On paper, everything is there to achieve what Allen has pitched as his dream to each and every player and coach: a Big Ten championship. Allen loves to motivate his team with singular words. For 2021, he chose “chase.”

"Do I expect us to compete for a Big Ten championship? Absolutely. That is what we are chasing after,” Allen said.

Indiana is starting to treat itself like a Big Ten and national power. Not only in the way Allen sets goals, but now who he schedules in the non-conference, the high-level players he recruits and the coaching staff he has built.

But what has Allen really won to already associate his team among college football’s best? Indiana defeated Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State and Wisconsin in the same year for the first time in program history in 2020, but the value of each win dwindled with each passing week as these programs finished with substandard years.

Indiana had the chance to defeat SEC teams in bowl games for two straight seasons and failed. Indiana played by far its worst game of the season against Ole Miss in the Outback after feeling disrespected by the College Football Playoff committee.

It turned out the committee was right. Without Penix in the Outback Bowl, Ole Miss — who entered the game with the worst defense in the SEC — gave up its fewest points of the season to Indiana. Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral ran circles around an Indiana defense that gave Ohio State its toughest regular-season game. 

It’s hard to take away from what Allen has built at Indiana. After all, he took over a low-level Big Ten team in the winter of 2016 and was an Ohio State win away from appearing in the Big Ten championship game in 2020. Indiana remains the losingest program in Division I college football history, but Allen is starting to change that. Indiana has grown to a level where it can competitively schedule Notre Dame, who has the fifth most wins in college football history. 

An unforeseen level of excitement surrounds Indiana leading up to the 2021 season, and it’s okay to hold Allen to this standard. But unlike the sour endings to the 2019 and 2020 seasons, it is time for Allen and the Hoosiers to prove they are for real. 

Neither of those seasons should be considered disappointments, but with the way Allen is starting to recruit, schedule, hire assistants and talk about his team like it is a top program in the nation, it becomes more crucial to back up those words with high-level play on the field. 

Looking ahead to 2021, this will be no easy task. Like every year, Indiana has to play Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State. After down years for these programs in 2020, it would be surprising to see Indiana beat each of these teams for a second straight year. 

In addition, the Hoosiers open the season at Iowa, which has proven to be a very difficult place to play. Indiana also welcomes Cincinnati to Bloomington, who was ranked as high as No. 8 in the country in 2020 and nearly defeated Georgia in the Peach Bowl.

With a schedule like this, Indiana has plenty of opportunities to prove itself as a top program in the Big Ten, or even the entire country, but also a chance to finish 2021 with an even higher level of disappointment than it did after the Outback Bowl. As expectations grow, so does disappointment if these goals are not reached. 

“Chase” is Allen’s word for 2021, but as the Hoosiers begin to associate themselves with top programs in the country, it is not only time to chase that label, but rather prove that they belong. 

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