CHICAGO, Ill. -- Indiana football is poised for big things. There's no reason to pretend otherwise.
The Hoosiers have the talent and experience to smash through the mediocrity that has dominated the program for a generation.
You'd better believe they know it.
“The way I want to leave, and a lot of our seniors want to leave, is we weren't losers,” senior receiver Kofi Hughes said during Wednesday's Big Ten football media gathering. “We want to be the group that turned this team around. We want to be the team that got IU football up to the top.”
For the record, the Hoosiers' 2007 Insight Bowl appearance was an aberration that was marred by a blowout loss to then emerging Oklahoma State. Lousy defense is the constant that has kept the program down even when it had one of the best players in Big Ten history, quarterback Antwaan Randle El.
Coach Kevin Wilson has built a program that appears to have all the ingredients for success. Talented skill players are complemented by solid linemen. Mitch Ewald might be the Big Ten's best kicker. A friendly schedule has eight home games, including the season's first five. IU has a conference-best 19 returning starters, with three experienced quarterbacks capable of running a team.
For all these reasons, and more, the Big Ten media picked IU to be the conference's biggest surprise.
That's as in a good surprise, even if players tried to downplay it.
“The fact we are the surprise team, we don't really like that,” kicker Mitch Ewald said. “We want to win every game. We don't just expect to be a bowl team or win six games. We want to win every game. We strive for perfection and hope to reach excellence. It will be a surprise if we don't give it all we've got.”
Or, as safety Greg Heban put it, “People talk that we got the most votes for most surprising. We don't talk about that. We just want to improve every day. We have a great shot to be better this year.”
Hughes remembers the turmoil from three years ago, when coach Bill Lynch was fired and the feisty Wilson was hired. He demanded that players go hard all the time. That they practice and train and play like the championship players he had directed during a successful offensive coordinator run at Oklahoma.
Not everyone bought into that. Or, perhaps, their views of working hard were different from Wilson's.
No matter. Everyone is on the same page, Hughes said.
“There were a few guys -- we knew even if we didn't say it -- that you wondered, is he really going hard every day? They're gone now. I look to my left and I look to my right. I trust everyone on this team. That's the first time I can say that.”
He had more to say.
“We've been working hard, even harder than the past years. ... This team has a trust bond.”
IU went 1-11 in Wilson's first season, 4-8 in his second. Last season it lost four games by four points or fewer.
For Hughes, enough is enough. This is his last college season and he wants to go out a winner.
“This is the chance to prove to the team that those 6 a.m. workouts, and all the weights lifted and the PRs set in the weight room, all the film we watched for the three years Coach Wilson has been here, the (reward) is finally here. We're finally turning this program around.
“I want to win the most games we can. I want to go to the Rose Bowl. I want to win a Big Ten championship.
“At the end of the day, the biggest goal is to get IU football to the top three (in the Big Ten) and get it to stay there. To say I was part of that team. I saw it through the struggles, the off-the-field issues, the kicking 30 people off the team, the (assistant) coaches quitting. To say that now IU football is at the top.”
In the end, it comes down to a simple question -- is this the year Indiana finally breaks through?
“Absolutely,” Ewald said.
There's no reason to pretend otherwise.