KRAVITZ: For IU and Wilson, this has got to be the year - or else

Kevin Wilson, IU head football coach (photo courtesy NBC Sports)
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Bob Kravitz

Almost every year, I come down for IU football’s media day, and almost every year, I hear the same things. About how the team physically looks more like a Big Ten team. About how the young players have grown up and are ready to produce at a high level. About how this time, it’s going to be different, how the Hoosiers, who haven’t been to a bowl game since 2007, are going to break through and reach the post-season.

Almost every year, I hear it.

Every year, it turns out to be empty chatter, the Hoosiers finishing their usual 4-7 or thereabouts, missing an opportunity to go to a bowl game, something half of all Division I teams accomplish in a given year.

Well then…

This year, they have to reach a bowl game, should reach a bowl game. Look at that schedule. There’s three victories on the non-conference schedule, maybe four. There’s Iowa at home. There’s Rutgers at home. There’s rebuilding Purdue, albeit in West Lafayette.

It’s really quite simple for IU head coach Kevin Wilson, who is in the fifth year of a seven-year contract: It’s bowl or bust, reach a bowl game or start sending out the resumes for the next coaching job. Athletic Director Fred Glass has been patient with his signature hire, properly gave Wilson a mulligan last year when quarterback Nate Sudfeld went down with a season-ending injury. But five years is long enough to build. Five years, especially with a very good, productive quarterback, is long enough to grow any program, even the historically woeful Hoosiers, into a bowl-worthy team.

And so I asked Wilson this weekend if the Hoosiers should be a bowl team this season.

“It should be a successful team,’’ he said, leaving the definition of “successful’’ open to some interpretation. “When we got here, our initial definition of success was winning today, which is getting one day better, one day better. We're not going to go public with a lot of goals, but we set some standards pretty high.

“We’ve shown we can compete, but we've shown we're inconsistent. You guys saw a couple games early in our season last year. I saw back-to-back plays from a veteran player one game, then I saw the next week, the next play-- there it was right there. There was something that we thought, 'That's off the chart great.' The very next play was, 'What happened?'. That was the inconsistency."

“We're human, going to drop balls, throw a bad pass, miss a tackle, a lot of flying parts out there. The consistency side to me, we got to be deep enough, talented enough. You got to be good enough with depth at line of scrimmage that you can control some things a little bit better. You've going to have to have some young guys.

“I don't say it has to be a bowl team. We expect it to be a successful team.’’

Let me define "successful."

Successful is playing in December. Somewhere warm. Or, heck, even cold as all get-out. If you’re Indiana, you can’t be picky. If there’s a bowl game on a North Atlantic ice floe, you say “thank you’’ and pack your parka jackets and ski gloves.

There are parts of this team that give you hope, and parts that give you pause. Sudfeld is the real deal. The offensive line, which is now populated by 300-pounders, figures to be sound as ever. The defensive line, led by Darius Latham, is competitive or even better. But there’s no established running back just yet, the Hoosiers having lost the amazing Tevin Coleman to graduation and the NFL. There’s a lack of established pass-catching skill, which is unusual for this program. And the secondary, which was so horrific last season, is very young and very untested at this point outside of Chase Dutra. These next few weeks, a lot of questions need to be answered in the affirmative.

Or else.

If nothing else, they’re thinking bowl game, which is what they should be thinking. I asked Latham if this is a bowl team, and he answered the way you’d expect, the way you’d hope.

"Yeah, definitely," he said. "I definitely think we can get to a bowl game and even better than that."

Better than that?

Let’s not be crazy here.

"We just feel more confident now, especially with Nate [Sudfeld] back there," Latham said. "We’re definitely more experienced. It’s just that time."

He’s right about that. And it’s particularly true for Wilson, who simply hasn’t proven yet that he’s the right person for this job. To his credit, he’s improved his people skills; when he arrived on campus, he rubbed a lot of folks the wrong way with his gruff approach to interpersonal  communication. It got so bad at one point early, Glass called him on the carpet and read him the Riot Act, told him to tone things down. Over time, though, he’s learned there’s a difference between being a semi-anonymous assistant coach and a high-profile head coach. He’s been better in recent years, even with the media, who haven’t always been his favorite people (and can you blame him?).

There’s no question Wilson has recruited better and better athletes each season, and IU looks more like a Big Ten football team that it has in the past.

But the results haven’t come where it counts – on the field.

2011: 1-11

2012: 4-8

2013: 5-7

2014: 4-8

Again, he gets a mulligan for last year. Once Sudfeld went down, he was reduced to life at quarterback with Zander Diamont. And it was ugly. Unless Coleman was running the ball, in which case, it was magic. How Coleman rushed for so many yards with no passing game (and an injured toe) remains one of the most remarkable accomplishments in program history.

So it’s early August, the Hoosiers just now returning to the practice field, and we’re hearing all the same things we’ve heard for the better part of several decades. "This will be the year....This time will be different." For Wilson’s sake, and for his future, it had better be.