The Old Oaken Bucket is back where it belongs for the second year in a row— the first time this has happened since 1993-94. Also back in Bloomington for another season is Coach Kevin Wilson, Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports reported on Sunday.
IU finished its season 4-8 overall and 1-7 in the Big Ten. At the beginning of the season, if you had told me this record would be the end result, then I would have been calling for Wilson’s firing.
However, my thoughts have changed since then.
Before the season, the expectation was that IU would take that next step up from a five-win team and become bowl-eligible. The opportunity was there to get six wins.
IU lost to Bowling Green in a game that could have ended its bowl hopes after two games, but the Hoosiers shocked the nation by beating Missouri on the road in what I believed to be the biggest win in school history. It may have been, but wasn’t after what transpired in the Iowa when quarterback Nate Sudfeld went down with an injury and was lost for the season.
It isn’t often that an injury ruins a season the way Sudfeld’s did. IU lost every game remaining besides the season finale against Purdue. His loss took away any chance of a bowl game.
Having backup quarterback Chris Covington get injured in the same week and being out for the season certainly didn’t help the Hoosiers. Zander Diamont just wasn’t ready to start in the Big Ten. While he improved as the season went on, it wasn’t enough.
But let’s be clear on something. It wasn’t just Sudfeld’s injury that saved Wilson’s job. Did it help? It sure did. But it was the improvement of the defense that I think earned Wilson his job for next year. The defense improved enough to win games. It was the lackluster quarterback play on offense that let the team down. Had Sudfeld been there, this team would be preparing for a bowl game right now. Last season, everyone said IU had to have just an average defense to win six, seven or even eight games. The Hoosiers got that defense.
With a healthy Sudfeld, a now prepared backup in Diamont and a much improved defense, this team should go to a bowl game next year. Add in a much easier schedule, and there are 10 winnable games for next season (Southern Illinois, Florida International, Western Kentucky, Wake Forest, Penn State, Rutgers, Iowa, Michigan, Maryland and Purdue).
Now some people will read this column and say that keeping Wilson will result in another bad season, or that losing Sudfeld isn’t an excuse or that the improved defense was a result of the defensive coordinator Brian Knorr.
I can’t put the blame on Wilson for Tre Roberson and Cam Coffman transferring to places they were going to play more. They knew Sudfeld was going to be the starter, and they simply wanted to be on the field. Wilson never had the opportunity to recruit another quarterback because Roberson transferred so late in the summer.
Now a ton of the credit has to go to Knorr in relation to the defense, but Wilson was involved and helped hire Knorr, so you have to give Wilson his fair share of credit just as he received blame for poor past defenses.
Another thing most IU fans often forget, when you fire a coach, the goal is to hire someone better than the previous guy. I have a hard time believing there is a guy willing to come to IU that would put the Hoosiers in a better position to succeed next year than with Wilson.
In an offseason where likely Michigan, Florida and Nebraska will be looking for new coaches, the top coaching candidates will be hired there, and then a second tier of candidates will replace those people at their old schools, leaving bottom-tier candidates for a school like IU. The Hoosiers would not be hiring the top assistant in the nation like they did with Wilson.
IU needs to keep a coach for more than three or four seasons. The program is not in a high enough caliber position to be able to cycle coaches like it has in the past. Wilson is the fifth coach at the helm for the Hoosiers since Bill Mallory, the winningest coach in IU history, was fired in 1996 after 13 seasons. This program needs consistency.
Next season will be boom or bust for Wilson and his staff. There will be no more excuses. But being the optimist I am, I’d put my money on boom.
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