BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Indiana found itself in strange and unfamiliar territory last November.
Because of the oddities in the Leaders Division in 2012, the Hoosiers went into their Nov. 10 game against Wisconsin with a chance to seize control of the division's berth in the Big Ten championship game. Indiana received more national attention that week than it normally gets in a year or more.
Of course, the story quickly faded as Wisconsin went into Bloomington and cruised to a 62-14 win, the beginning of a three-game slide to end the season for Indiana. Several Hoosiers said this spring that they weren't quite ready for the limelight last fall.
"We put too much pressure on ourselves to think about winning and potentially moving past that and onto further goals," senior kicker Mitch Ewald said.
The sour ending put a damper on the year, but there was no denying that the program made progress in head coach Kevin Wilson's second year. The team went from 1-11 in 2011 to 4-8 last year, including back-to-back Big Ten wins over Illinois and Iowa while throwing scares into Ohio State and Michigan State.
So now the Hoosiers are thinking about the next step in their development, which inevitably includes the 'B' word. Indiana hasn't been bowling since 2007 Insight Bowl, which stands as the school's only postseason appearance in the last 20 years. Yet the players are daring to make that not only their goal this year. Ewald said "that's the bare minimum of our expectations and standards."
"We haven't talked about it so much with the coaches on a daily basis," running back Stephen Houston said. "But just from player to player, we were disappointed we didn't get to send our seniors off with a bowl last year. We're taking it upon ourselves to treat ourselves to that this year."
Wilson understands that after you improve from one to four wins, the logical leap is six victories and a bowl. Yet so far he's been cautious about putting that out there as a marker for this team.
"Our whole thing has not been targeting a number of wins or a bowl," he said. "Our goals are more short term, like getting better every day and adding better chemistry and leadership, rather than worrying about the end result.
"But I think with the way we're practicing and the way were working, it's pointing in a way where you've got a chance to be successful."
There are arguments for and against Indiana's case for a bowl in 2013. Among the pros:
The Hoosiers should have one of the best offenses in the Big Ten. A year after leading the league in passing yards and scoring 30.8 points per game, they bring back every major contributor at the skill positions. This is a team that scored 49 points against Ohio State last year and should be much better this season. "We're so much further ahead than we were at this time last year, it's not even funny," second-year offensive coordinator Seth Littrell said.
No Big Ten team returns as much experience as IU, which lost only five scholarship players from 2012 and only three starters (center Will Matte and defensive linemen Adam Replogle and Larry Black, Jr.). Wilson's choice to bite the bullet and play scores of freshmen the past two years should start to pay real dividends, and one of the best recruiting classes -- on paper, at least -- in recent program history will add even more depth.
Eight home games on the schedule.
And now for the cons:
That schedule, despite the plethora of home games, is highly challenging. The nonconference portion includes the Big Ten's only regular-season meeting against an SEC club (Missouri), plus two other bowl teams from 2012 (Navy and Bowling Green). The conference schedule begins with a visit from Penn State followed by trips to Michigan and Michigan State, and November brings back-to-back road games at Ohio State and Wisconsin.
The defense, which has been the worst in the league in each of Wilson's two years, must prove it can stop anyone with a pulse. Replogle and Black left a gaping hole on the defensive line. While several of the incoming recruits are expected to help, it's hard to win with freshmen on defense in the Big Ten.
Wilson appears to have the full support of athletic director Fred Glass, so making a bowl in Year Three is not necessary for his job security, as long as the team keeps improving. Still, the Hoosiers players pledge to put themselves in a favorable position this season, and they insist things will be different than they were last November.
"We just have to learn how to handle success, because we will be in that situation again," Houston said. "We're right, but being right there isn't good enough. We want to be a team to be reckoned with, and we're going to take our respect."