- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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Indiana tight end Ted Bolser qualifies as a village elder on the Hoosiers' football team. Bolser is a fifth-year senior on a roster stuffed with underclassmen, a four-year starter who has suffered through three straight losing seasons.
So Bolser speaks with authority when talking about how much the Indiana program has changed in the past few years and where it might be headed.
"Everything's completely different around here," he said. "Night and day. There's definitely a buzz around campus right now about the team."
"Buzz" and Hoosier football are not terms that normally appear in the same sentence, unless you're talking about tailgating. Indiana has made only one bowl appearance since 1993 and none since 2007 and is just 5-19 under third-year coach Kevin Wilson. Yet there is a good deal of positive publicity coming out of Bloomington these days.
Several preseason prognosticators have projected the Hoosiers to reach a bowl game this season. In a poll of Big Ten writers by the Cleveland Plain Dealer this summer, Indiana was the runaway choice as the team most likely to surprise in 2013. At Big Ten media days in Chicago, where the IU contingent often has plenty of free time, crowds gathered around Wilson and his players. Wilson has challenged the fan base to support the team this year, and the school reports that season ticket sales are up 5 percent, while student ticket sales have increased 18 percent over last year.
"We're not boasting or bragging," Wilson said. "We don't have it figured out. But we are, in the Twitter world, trending in a positive way."
Why the sudden uptick in interest for a team that lost to Ball State and Navy last year? For one, Indiana has a whopping 19 starters back, tied for the most in the FBS. That includes all but one starter on an offense that led the Big Ten in passing yards and finished second in the league in total yards in 2012. The Hoosiers return three experienced quarterbacks -- Tre Roberson, Cam Coffman and Nate Sudfeld, who all all battling for the starting job -- along with arguably the conference's top receiving group. They could put a lot of points on the scoreboard this season.
Of course, the question remains whether they can keep points off the board, as IU's defense has been the worst in the Big Ten in each of Wilson's first two seasons and got torched for 163 points in its final three games last year. The team brought in one of its highest-ranked recruiting classes ever in February, and not surprisingly it was stuffed with defensive players, like defensive backs Antonio Allen and Rashard Fant and lineman Darius Latham. Early reports on the newcomers have been strong.
"They’re living up to the hype right now," senior defensive back Greg Heban said.
And the hope is that other young players on both sides of the ball continue to develop. Indiana was starting to build momentum as a program in the mid-2000s under Terry Hoeppner, who died after a long battle with brain cancer in 2007. His successor, Bill Lynch, led the Hoosiers on an inspiration bowl run in the 2007 season while coaching with the interim tag. But Lynch was fired in 2010 after three straight losing seasons. Wilson arrived and faced some resistance to change by the upperclassmen, and he began playing lots of true freshmen right away.
"I don’t think people knew the depth of issues we had in our team, and it wasn’t going to change just over the course of two years," senior receiver Kofi Hughes said. "But three years? I think it has definitely changed, and things are completely different."
In Year 3, Wilson says, the players all understand his standards and work ethic. There's far better depth and competition at every position. When asked whether this should be his best IU team, he said, "It's not close." But he continues to point out that the Hoosiers still haven't accomplished much of anything yet.
"There's always a little pessimism," he said. "Talk's cheap. ... We're getting better and we're gaining and it's a lot more fun and you feel it, but you've got to go win games and prove it. Like one guy said, 'Give me one word to describe your talent.' And I said, 'Unproven.' We've yet to really show.
"There's a boatload of potential, but you've got to go do it. It's getting over the hump and getting Ws."
Indiana benefits from eight home games this year, though nonconference games against Missouri, Navy and Bowling Green are challenging. The Hoosiers also must deal with Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin in their own division and crossover games against Michigan and Michigan State, both of which are on the road.
Still, the pieces are in place for a run at six wins and a bowl game. And maybe even more.
"Just going to a bowl, if that's our standard, that's pretty low," Bolser said. "It's kind of embarrassing, actually. We're setting our standards very high this year."
2dSam Khan Jr.