It is safe to say in my year and a half of posting my weekly thoughts, this week's edition is by far the most frustrating. The South Carolina loss was heartbreaking; the Auburn loss disappointing; but this loss was frustrating and also surprising. Yes, in past years, the Tigers had losses like this -- to Baylor, to New Mexico, to Vanderbilt and to Syracuse, but honestly, I had convinced myself we were past such defeats. If anything, going into the season, I thought the Central Florida game had more potential to bite us in the butt than Indiana.
Well, as the saying goes, "That's why they play the games." The Tigers played a poor game -- honestly the poorest I've seen in many years, where almost no aspect of the game was clicking. Indeed, my overall reaction to the Hoosier loss can be summed up in one simple yet very descriptive word -- fugly -- which by coincidence, is spelled out via the first letter in each of my "thoughts" for this week, which are below. Enjoy! :)
1. Fire Pinkel. Well, not really. I'm not that kind of fan. Plus, I know Coach Pinkel is feeling as frustrated as we are, and probably was as the game progressed. Even after we kicked the field goal to take the lead, I had this sense of impending doom and I am sure the ghosts-of-losses-past emerged. Still, though that doesn't excuse the mind-numbingly silly decision not to call a timeout in the final minute as time ticked away, the sense that we were completely unfocused and not prepared for this game, and I still will not understand why, on a day when some of our position players were not getting it done, the decision not to use our depth chart. If on Saturday, we "did what we did", it failed.
2. Underestimating your opponent is never a good idea. I don't care if you're playing Alabama or Alabama State -- never underestimate your opponent. While I do not buy into any notion fan-chatter can impact a game, the fact is the Big 10 was not well thought of going into our game, and I'm sure Indiana, largely regarded as coming from the bottom third of that league and coming off a loss to Bowling Green - was not exactly treated, in the minds of our players, as the type of opponent likely to come in and win. The fact we seemed sluggish and off-our-mental-game all day lends credence to the theory that perhaps the Tigers had already marked this one down in the W column. I'm sure they'd deny that, but when you think about it, didn't most of fans, including myself? Perhaps this should be a lesson that no matter who you play - particularly someone from a power conference - you should always understand that their talent really is not that far away from your own, and all it takes is your players taking a mental day off to even the score.
3. Golden's absence hurt, and it showed. Injuries play a role in losses like this, because when you remove a key talent from a position where you excel, it also helps even the score. That was clear on Saturday when Indiana, at times, would march down the field and get big gains when they shouldn't have been able to. This is a concern not only for the immediate when Markus Golden is out, but what about the future, when Golden is gone? I hope that we will be able to adjust if he is out for an extended period.
4. Lack of focus was a consistent theme in the loss. The bad snaps are a lack of focus. The dropped balls by our receivers are a lack of focus. Maty Mauk missing his targets -- sometimes quite badly -- was a lack of focus. Ten penalties was a lack of focus - including one that cost us the game on that fateful critical 4th down. I don't like the blame game, but this is a reflection of coaching and leadership. The good news is that this is a hard lesson and there is much to be salvaged this season, probably up to but probably NOT including the playoff - absent running the table, and I fully expect our players to learn from it and emerge next week in Columbia, South Carolina ready to beat a Gamecock squad who has not exactly impressed either.
5. Youth movement? I would like to see some other players involved in both receiving and rushing; otherwise, not only am I concerned about depth the rest of this season, I'm concerned about what this will mean for next season. Perhaps this is a reason we may not see a "power five" opponent in the non-con next year, at this rate. I would open up the competition at every position, every week, but I sense right now that we have "our guys" and that's who is playing, and I'd like to see some other guys in there from time to time. Just a thought.
As for the weekend in college football as a whole...
6. I was hoping for more chaos, and we almost got it. LSU lost, but it seemed for a while turmoil might reign as Florida State, Oregon, Oklahoma and South Carolina all seemed ready to get bit by the upset bug but all avoided it. At least in the SEC, everyone seems like they're probably going to lose at some point -- I don't see anyone going undefeated at this juncture.
7. How for real is Mississippi State? We'll find out fast. The Bulldogs certainly impressed with a road win at LSU and in my view, certainly deserve their ranking. But, how high that ranking goes (or remains) will be determined quite quickly, as their next two opponents are Texas A&M and Auburn, though they do play both at home. Later in the year, they play at Auburn and at Ole Miss. The sky is the limit for the Bulldogs, but anything 9-3+ will be a great season for them. Regardless, I'm lad to see another team emerge from the former "lower half" of the SEC -- don't be surprised if Kentucky follows in the next year or two.
8. Ahoy, East Carolina! Last week, I noted how the East Carolina Pirates had emerged as the Group of Five team most likely to get the automatic spot into one of the big six bowl games. Now that they crushed previously-ranked North Carolina 70-41, that has been further cemented, Had they been able to beat South Carolina, we'd honestly be talking about an outside shot at a Playoff bid for them. Of course, they still must beat out Cincinnati for the AAC crown, but the Pirates look like a great club.
9. Could Utah win the Pac 12 South? One may have thought this notion crazy, but the Utes are playing really well to start the season, complete with an impressive win at Michigan on Saturday and having demolished Fresno State the week before. Now they host Washington State and travel to UCLA -- which will determine how much of a factor the Utes are in a division in which everyone save Colorado seems to have a chance.
10. Go Hoosiers! Say, what? Yes, one of the things I always find humorous about college sports is when your team suffers an early loss it shouldn't -- the fans of the losing team end up cheering for the team that upset them throughout the rest of the season, in hopes that loss will not look nearly as bad come season's end. In that spirit, Indiana is off to a bad start in that regard having already lost to Bowling Green, but Indiana still has a decent shot at a bowl game -- they do play North Texas and Purdue, but they need to get started this next week with a win vs. impressive-so-far Maryland. Here is hoping they can be up to the task, so we may look back upon Saturday in a more favorable light.
That's it for this week.
Games I'll be watching in Week 5 beyond our own:
UCLA at Arizona State -- UCLA has looked unimpressive in their wins, but Arizona State has given up some points it shouldn't. This could be an entertaining one.
Cincinnati at Ohio State -- Cincinnati has a chance to show it is as good as East Carolina, and Ohio State gets a chance to show they can actually compete for the Big 10.
Washington State at Utah -- Washington State barely lost to Rutgers but nearly beat Oregon. Are they just a talented team who can't get over the top? And I've already talked about Utah. This is an off the radar game that's interesting to me.
Maryland at Indiana -- See above!
Enjoy the games and thanks for your comments and feedback!