College football success for middling programs are quantified by one measure: bowl games.
Despite all the progress and all the oh-so-close-ing of the 2015 season, this Indiana football season will feel unvalidated without one. It would be a talking point for Kevin Wilson's detractors -- eager to point out that the program's progress hasn't resulted in any tangible awards. It's unfair to seniors like Nate Sudfeld and Jason Spriggs -- who won't get the opportunity to cap their careers by showcasing their abilities for NFL scouts in a bowl game. And it's a disappointment for fans, who will have to extrapolate some positive out of a season that doesn't provide a tasty treat at the end of a difficult Big Ten schedule of heartache.
What needs to happen for the Hoosiers to play over the holidays? And where might they end up?
HERE'S YOUR SCENARIOS.
What Indiana needs to do: Beat Purdue on Saturday
Do they need help?: Nah!
Why this scenario will happen: Purdue has been, by many accounts, the worst team in the Big Ten for the large part of 2015. They can reach a bowl game this season under any scenario -- and it's very possibly they might be checked out. Indiana passes the "eye test" as the better football team -- and they come out and play like it. The offense keeps the momentum rolling into the holiday weekend, and keeps the Bucket for the 3rd straight year to the tune of rolling up 700 yards of total offense on a hapless Purdue team.
Why it won't happen: Because it's the Bucket game. And we're talking about Indiana football here, so nothing ever happens like it's supposed to. More tangibly, this outcome would require Indiana to win consecutive Big Ten road games -- something they haven't done since October 1993. The Hoosiers lay an egg in West Lafayette on Saturday, ending the hopes of making a bowl game.
Or does it?
A BACKDOOR BOWL GAME?
What Indiana needs to do: Jack-diddly-poo!
Do they need help!: Maybe! As we've discussed before, 5-7 teams might still be able to reach a bowl game this season. It's expected that the NCAA will finalize selection criteria today, but most reasonable individuals seem to believe it will hinge on the program's APR score, but look more like an "art, not a science." Indiana's very good APR could help the Hoosiers can a bowl bid.
With an APR score of 985 and massive fan base, Nebraska seems poised to gain a bowl bid regardless of the outcome of the Iowa game Friday. Only two teams that could get to 5 wins that are currently 4-7 have better APR scores than Indiana -- Vanderbilt and Rutgers. Two more teams that, like Indiana, will finish 5-7 at worst have equal 977 APR scores. Of course, it's not 100% that the selection of these 5-7 teams will follow exactly descending order -- bowl games have always been given a good deal of autonomy. But let's assume it does. That's a total of as many as 5 5-7 teams that could be selected ahead of Indiana for bowl trips.
How many spots will be available for 5-7 teams? So far, 71 teams across college football are bowl eligbile, 9 more are needed to fill all 40 bowl games this season. There are 14 teams that are able to still reach 6 wins across college football with a single victory, and 13 of those only have one game remaining on Saturday. 4-6 Texas & Kansas State could also still reach 6 wins -- as well as 3 4-6 Sun Belt teams. Given schedules, those all seem unlikely to happen, however, save Kansas State.
If only 4 of those 19 teams reach bowl eligibility with wins, Indiana stands a damn good chance to reach a bowl game. If only 6 of those teams reach 5 wins and Vanderbilt and Rutgers lose matchups to Tennessee and Maryland respectively, Indiana stands a damn good chance to reach a bowl game. Those ratios don't sound promising, but here's the slate of games for those 5-6 teams on Saturday:
Missouri (5-6) at Arkansas
#20 Washington State (8-3) at Washington (5-6)
#5 Iowa (11-0) at Nebraska (5-6)
Boise State 7-4 at San Jose State (5-6)
UMASS (2-9) at Buffalo (5-6)
Tulsa (5-6) at Tulane (3-8)
Indiana (5-6) at Purdue (2-9)
Louisville (6-5) at Kentucky (5-6)
Virginia Tech (5-6) at Virginia (4-7)
FAU (2-9) at Old Dominion (5-6)
Cincinnati (6-5) at East Carolina (5-6)
Northwestern (9-2) vs. Illinois (5-6)
Wisconsin (8-3) vs. Minnesota (5-6)
If I'm picking those games and assume an Indiana loss, I've got only 4 teams reaching bowl eligibility on Saturday -- Buffalo, Tulsa, Virginia Tech, and East Carolina. The nation's only remaining 5-5 team, South Alabama, has to play the best two teams in the Sun Belt still -- 7-3 Georgia Southern and 8-2 Appalachian State, as do the other 4-6 Sun Belt teams. Texas gaining bowl eligibility requires them beating Baylor in Waco in two weeks. Kansas State is the most likely of the bunch to reach 6-6, considering they've got Kansas this week. Still, a 6th win would have to come in an upset over a good enough West Virginia team.
TL;DR: I'd guess there's going to be room for 3 to 5 5-7 teams in bowl games, leaning more toward 5 spots.
So, now, go back to APR scores. Again, if this comes down to APR, Nebraska is in. The next two spots would be decided by these two games, also to be played Saturday.
Vanderbilt (4-7) at Tennessee (7-4)
Rutgers (4-7) at Maryland (2-9)
Again, if I'm picking, Rutgers makes it to 5-7, that's it. They're in a bowl game with a 980 APR score.
That leaves Indiana and Washington both at 5-7 and 977 APR scores next in line, if the bowls are filled in descending order of APR. Who wins out there if there's one spot left? Our guess is as good as yours -- but conference bowl tie-ins, ticket guarantees, and other subjective factors will likely play in. If conference bowl tie-ins matter, Indiana might very well get the nod -- they'd be the Big Ten's 10th bowl team to fill out the conferences 10 bowl tie-ins.
SO, WHERE WILL THE HOOSIERS GO?
The Big Ten is blessed by two things that are going to help the Hoosiers play in a much better bowl than expected this season -- a ton of bowl tie-ins and lots of teams on the fringe of playoff contention. SBN's Jason Kirk projects three Big Ten teams to make New Years Six or CFP Bowls -- something very likely to occur pending weird carnage on the last day of conference play.
Indiana would be the Big Ten's 8th bowl eligible team at 6-6, but they'd be bumped up to the 5th to 7th "bowl picks" tier due to the 2-3 teams in the NY6. In that tier, you'll have the Pinstripe Bowl in Yankee Stadium, the Gator, er, TaxSlayerBowl OR the Music City Bowl, and the Foster Farms Bowl in the Bay Area. Those all alternate from year to year in a weird way, but the three teams most likely to make up that selection group would be Penn State, Indiana, and well, that's it. A 5-7 Nebraska would have to fill in the other slot after all other 6-6 teams were placed. Penn State just played in the Pinstripe Bowl last year -- so it'd be unlikely to see them head back. It'd be far more likely to see them head to Jacksonville, Nashville, or Santa Clara. If the Pinstripe Bowl has the first priority out of these three as some seem to indicate, Indiana's likely heading to New York at 6-6. Jason agrees with me -- and has them taking on Louisville in the Bronx.
Lose to Purdue and you're likely headed to the Armed Forces Bowl or Quick Lane Bowl in Fort Worth or Detroit respectively, depending on which bowl finds 5-7 Indiana or Rutgers more compelling.
Don't lose to Purdue.
In this scenario, Virginia Tech would be off the board and already bowl eligible.