This weekend's game might be the game that Indiana needs to become bowl eligible, but it's likely the first of two victories the team needs to secure a spot in the postseason.
As Indiana (5-4/2-4) gears up for Saturday's Noon match-up against Ball State (5-4/3-2 in the MAC) both teams find themselves in a similar spot. Both have a chance to become technically eligible for a postseason bowl berth, but neither would be comfortable that they'd be bowl bound if they only secure six victories.
In Ball State's case, the Mid-America Conference has only three guaranteed spots – the Motor City (1st place team), GMAC (2nd) and International (3rd). Currently zero teams in the MAC have secured a sixth win, but a slew of teams have a chance to do that. Buffalo (5-4) and Central Michigan (5-4) lead their respective divisions and have the inside track to the postseason, but Miami (Ohio), Bowling Green, Ohio and Toledo are among the teams who could still finish strong and land one of those three bowl bids.
Indiana, meanwhile, hasn't been bowl eligible since 1994, but if Coach Bill Lynch's team gets only six wins – particularly if that sixth win comes against Ball State – they'll likely repeat what happened in '94 when they stayed home despite being eligible for the postseason. The Big Ten has seven guaranteed spots, and six teams are already bowl eligible (Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, Wisconsin, Illinois and Purdue), three teams need one more win (Indiana, Michigan State and Northwestern) and one team needs two more wins (Iowa).
While an eighth or even ninth Big Ten team could slide into an open spot on the bowl schedule if another conference can't fill its allotted slots, an Indiana team that's 6-6 overall and 2-6 in the Big Ten is going to be hard pressed to be that team.
So…Indiana needs to win this week, and probably needs to win next week at Northwestern to get to seven wins and solidify its spot in the conference's pecking order ahead of the Wildcats and put itself in a position to be the seventh-place Big Ten team or a legitimate possibility to fill an open bowl spot. With a rule that prevents a 6-6 team from being selected ahead of a 7-5 team to fill a vacant bowl slot, Indiana's status would be shaky at best without the seventh win.
While Ball State is much improved – as evidenced by its one-point loss at Nebraska and its hard fought loss at Illinois a week ago – this is still a game that Indiana should win and can win comfortably if it can minimize the turnovers that has plagued them as of late. Ball State surrenders more than 200 yards per game versus the run as well as the past, so teams have been able to move the ball at relative will against the Cardinal defense. Coach Brady Hoke's defense has made up for its inability to stop teams from chewing up large chunks of yardage by producing 20 turnovers, including 14 interceptions.
The Ball State offense, led by quarterback Nate Davis, will give IU problems. The question will be what sort of success Davis and Co. has when it gets into the red zone. Will it be forced to settle for field goals, or will they be able to turn long drives into touchdowns?
Ultimately, I think it's all but a certainty that IU will amass at least 400 yards of total offense. If it can limits turnovers to one or none, should be able to score in the 30s. If the turnovers pile up, though, that point total might be in the 20s, and that's when Indiana could be in trouble.
I don't see that happening, though. Eliminating turnovers has been a point of emphasis this week, and it's unimaginable that Coach Bill Lynch's team can turn it over four or five times for a third straight week.
HoosierNation.com Prediction: Indiana 42, Ball State 24
What's coming up:
On Monday – Five Numbers to Note
On Tuesday – Four Players to Know
On Wednesday – Three Big Concerns
On Thursday – Two Key Match-Ups
On Friday – One Bold Prediction
BALL STATE: One Day and Counting
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