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Forget College Gameday for a minute, Wake Forest is more important than everything else

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Looking for the program's first 4-0 start since 1990, the Hoosiers roll into Winston-Salem for what may be the biggest trap game that any of us under 30 can remember. But this trap game may just be the most important game Indiana has played in decades.

Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports

You have to beat Wake Forest.

After playing just two halves of inspiring football to begin the 2015 season, reality should be setting in. This program is better now than it has been for the better part of a decade, and maybe even better than in 2007.

Don't be confused. I mean exactly what I said. This team has only played two halves of good football. But they're 3-0. And if that had happened over the first three games in any of the past seven or eight season, they'd be 1-2 at best.

As we've noted here at CQ, the Hoosiers are doing things that they never do, winning games that they should win even when they don't play their best football. And it's got everybody fired up.

Even College GameDay producer Lee Fitting has acknowledged the idea of bringing ESPN's best pregame show to Bloomington.

But as much fun as it would be, next week doesn't matter. And I think you know what I mean. No matter what happens this week and regardless of whether GameDay ends up at The Rock, Indiana will be a massive home dog, probably by two and one-half or three scores. No matter what develops over the next four or five days, Ohio State will still be much more talented than the Hoosiers and will probably win on October 3. It's not a given or a lock, but it's likely.

But one thing that is a certainty is that the difference between 4-0 and 3-1 for this team could make or break the entire season.

I must briefly confess that I am not a huge believer in statistics that are derived by complex formulas. Across all sports, I prefer stats like turnovers, rebounds, on-base percentage, etc. I don't discount stats like PER or WAR when it comes to choosing players in free agency or the draft, or even when it comes to how a team will build its lineup. But once we get between the lines I want concrete numbers that tell me what happened.

But it's difficult to look ahead to the rest of the season using those hard numbers. So other than the eye test, those numbers that I hate so much may be the only way to predict what's going to happen.

That said, ESPN's Football Power Index says Indiana is going 6-6. If you've watched any worldwide leader show lately, you know that they have developed an odd fetish with these numbers, using secret formulas that they act like they'll protect like Colonel Sanders would his blend of herbs and spices. They say that IU is going to get beat by Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan State, Iowa, and Michigan. And FPI apparently thinks Indiana will lose one game to a team that they are ahead of in these formulated rankings.

This is how ESPN describes the FPI: "The Football Power Index (FPI) is a measure of team strength that is meant to be the best predictor of a team's performance going forward for the rest of the season. FPI represents how many points above or below average a team is. Projected results are based on 10,000 simulations of the rest of the season using FPI, results to date, and the remaining schedule."

Here's where Indiana ranks by that metric in comparison with all the teams remaining on the schedule:

6. Ohio State, 22.8

16. Michigan State, 17.1

37. Michigan, 9.7

45. Penn State, 7.5

48. Iowa, 6.4

75. INDIANA, -1.8

79. Purdue, -2.4

80. Maryland, -2.6

85. Rutgers, -3.7

89. Wake Forest, -5.9

They also have a category titled "efficiencies." The description? "Team efficiencies are based on the point contributions of each unit to the team's scoring margin, on a per-play basis. The values are adjusted for strength of schedule and down-weighted for "garbage time" (based on win probability). The scale goes from 0 to 100; higher numbers are better and the average is roughly 50 for all categories."

This metric probably accounts for the other projected loss. According to Team Efficiencies, IU's defense is so bad (20.4) and Maryland's special teams are so good (84.7), Maryland is a more efficient team. And that suggests that over the course of the season, Maryland will probably pass IU in the FPI rankings. (As a note, Wake Forest and IU have the exact same total efficiency rating, 42.7.)

So, if you subscribe to these kinds of numbers and really think that Michigan State is the 16th best team in the country, (lay off the drugs and) think of the Wake Forest game this way: It's not a must-win for GameDay, it may be a must-win to play 13.

But even if you want to throw these numbers away like I do and use the eye test and say that Penn State, Iowa, Michigan, and Maryland are teams that Indiana can or should beat, you have to start using those eyes and look at schedules from past seasons. If I told you to count back 10 road wins, you know what year you'd have to go back to? 2006. Only four of those 10 wins were in the conference.

Wake Forest. Penn State. Michigan State. Maryland. Purdue. Five football games that are of the variety that Indiana seems to win about as often as Tom Crean wears pants that fit.

Take the two games that, unequivocally, the team should lose -- Ohio State and Michigan State -- and imagine that this team is 3-2 rather than 3-0. That means you've got seven to win three. Six to win two sounds a lot better than six to win three, especially when two of those six include Rutgers and Purdue. Six to win two sounds like a bowl game.

This is all a very circular way to say that a win against Wake Forest all but guarantees a bowl game. I think even the most pessimistic among us will agree that between Penn State, Maryland, and Purdue, the Hoosiers can win at least one road game. And you have to like their chance against Rutgers on Homecoming.

But a loss against Wake throws the season into flux. And a loss in a few weeks in Happy Valley could easily mean that come late-November, IU could be 4-6 needing two wins away from The Rock.

We've hyped a potential GameDay visit as much as possible. And while it has to be hyped now because of their scheduling procedures, it's time to start shifting the focus. The outcome of this weekend's game may very well dictate the tone for the rest of the season. Win and we can watch comfortably, nearly certain that two more wins are on the schedule somewhere. A loss, and all of a sudden you have to go .500 in games that you're on near equal footing with the opponent. I don't know a single Indiana fan who would rest easy knowing that.

You have to beat Wake Forest. Not because GameDay will never happen if IU is 3-1, but because 3-1 puts 5-7 in play. This game is more important than anything else. You have to beat Wake Forest.