Three years ago, I wrote about how the 2015 season was the IU football edition of The Season On The Brink. Kevin Wilson walked that tightrope, securing six wins and a bowl berth. He did it again in 2016 and everything seemed fine. Maybe K Dub wasn’t maximizing IU football’s potential, but he seemed to have solved the defense with the hiring of Tom Allen, and despite a disappointing offensive season in 2016, odds were the offense wouldn’t be a long-term problem on his watch. And then he resigned (or something like that).
That little turn of events made 2017 something of a freebie season for first-time college head coach Tom Allen, despite the fact that he inherited IU’s most talented defense in a generation1, as well as a skilled receiving corps and a returning QB. Allen’s Hoosiers proceeded to go 5-7, which, while it wasn’t a disaster, wasn’t a success either.
So where does that put Allen and IU football as we look ahead to 2018? Is this yet another Season On The Brink?
To answer that question, we can start by considering where Coach Wilson stood in 2015. IU’s records in Wilson’s 4 seasons at the helm prior to 2015 were:
2011: 1-11 – essentially a mulligan, given the personnel departures and empty cupboard left by Bill Lynch
2012: 4-8 – better, closer, warmer
2013: 5-7 – major progress on offense, only a brutal loss to Minnesota kept IU out of a bowl game.
2014: 4-8 – a horrible loss to Bowling Green and an early injury to Nate Sudfeld more or less doomed the season and wasted an all-time performance by Tevin Coleman.
After (rightfully) excluding 2011, Wilson was coming off three straight seasons in which his teams had showed promise and talent, but had failed to win six games. He’d only won as many as five once. Even at IU, where the expectations for football are, um, not high, that’s enough time to amp up the pressure.
Then there was Wilson’s contract. When he was hired in 2011, he signed a seven-year deal. He was entering Year 5 of that deal in 2015. It was highly unlikely that Wilson would have been kept around for the last two years of his contract as a lame-duck if he had failed to win 6 in 2015. Recruiting would have been impossible with that contractual status.
When compared to Coach Allen’s situation in 2018, there’s the obvious difference that Allen has only had one season of missing a bowl game, as opposed to Wilson’s four. But look a little deeper, and the scenarios start to look similar. First, from a contractual standpoint, Allen is entering Year 2 of a five-year contract. Unless he receives an extension, Allen will have to start dealing with partial lame duck status in recruiting, in that, with only 3 years remaining on his deal, he will not be able to assure a recruit that he will remain at IU for the recruit’s entire collegiate career. Without an extension, Wilson would have had only 2 years left instead of 3, but the same concept applies.
So that puts IU AD Fred Glass in a tricky situation. I think it is fairly non-controversial to assert that Glass would prefer to extend Allen after the 2018 season. Unlike Wilson, Allen has by all accounts treated the fans, high school coaches and Glass with respect, and appears to have fostered a positive, familial culture within the program. He’s been a good ambassador for a program that requires its head coach to be a good ambassador more than most Power 5 programs.
While that’s all great, it will nonetheless be very hard for Glass to extend Allen if he fails to win six games this fall. But why would Glass give Wilson 5 years to make a bowl and not give Allen the same? Two reasons: (1) state of the program inherited and (2) coaching background or resume. On the first point, there is no doubt that Allen inherited a program in far better shape than it was when Wilson took over in 2011. While Wilson’s grating (to put it mildly) style likely drove some players away and held down recruiting2, he nonetheless raised the talent and expectation level in his time at IU. By 2010, IU under Bill Lynch was, both in talent and expectation, a good MAC school. By the time Wilson left, IU was a slightly below average B1G team – and maybe better than that if IU had been in the B1G West. That’s a significant rebuilding effort and one from which Coach Allen should be expected to reap the benefits.
On the second point, Kevin Wilson was a long-time offensive coordinator at two Power 5 programs, including perennial title contender Oklahoma. At IU, he fielded exciting and successful offenses even when the team wasn’t consistently winning. Coach Allen can match part of Wilson’s resume, but not all. He’s put together two very good (if not quite great) defenses in ’16 and ’17, for a program that hadn’t had a very good defense since Bill Mallory was on the sideline. But his overall coaching background simply doesn’t match Wilson’s. He’d been a defensive coordinator for 1 season before coming to IU – at non-Power 5 USF. Before that, he’d been a position coach at Ole Miss and Arkansas State. He simply doesn’t have the track record of high level success that Wilson had. The reality is that while we have a pretty good idea of Tom Allen the defensive coordinator3, we simply do not know that much yet about Tom Allen, CEO of a Power 5 college football program.
So what do we know about Allen, the head coach, 1.5 years into the job? Bill Connelly has discussed the concept of measuring college coaches on three distinct skillsets: (1) recruiting talent, (2) developing talent, and (3) deploying talent. On the first skillset, accounting for the difficulty of recruiting at IU, Allen and his staff have shown themselves to be solidly above-average. According to 24-7’s composite rankings, the incoming freshmen class, Allen’s first in which he was the head man for the full cycle, is better than 3 of Wilson’s 5 full classes4, about equal to another (2014) and behind only one (the ultimately disappointing 2013 class that featured Antonio Allen, Darius Latham and David Kenney). Allen & Co. have done quite well attracting talent from the Southeast (particularly Florida, where Allen has strong ties), and have made progress in-state. The bull case is that with a little more on field success, this staff could turn top 50 classes into top 40 classes or better. The bear case is that unless IU shows a major improvement on the field, this coaching staff has not demonstrated sufficient recruiting prowess to break the top 40 threshold, while other B1G programs ostensibly in IU’s same tier, like Purdue, Maryland and Minnesota, have jumped well ahead of IU by hiring truly dynamic recruiters. Landing somewhere between bull and bear, recruiting remains a check in Allen’s favor.
With respect to developing talent, this season will tell us quite a bit, particularly on defense. Allen is replacing 8 major defensive contributors with players who have developed under him since he was hired as IU’s defensive coordinator in 2016. On offense, the big question is whether players who saw action last year – and in large part struggled – have improved under this staff’s guidance in the offseason. The hiring of new strength coach David Ballou and his colleague Matt Rhea suggest that Allen realizes the importance of development.
In regard to deploying talent, this season will be a good gauge of that skillset as well. The personnel changes on defense will test Allen’s abilities as a coordinator. It’s reasonable to expect some regression from 2017’s top 25 defense by most metrics, but if Allen can field a top 40 or even top 50 defense after a near-wholesale change of its core, he will have further demonstrated his DC chops.
Which leads me to the issue that I feel is most likely to derail Allen’s tenure, if it is to be derailed: offensive deployment under offensive coordinator Mike DeBord. In his 20+ years running offenses, DeBord has never demonstrated an ability to consistently produce points when he does not have a talent advantage, and lacking a talent advantage is the reality of life at IU.5 Last season only reinforced that view, with IU finishing 98th in Offensive S&P. With an offseason to further implement his scheme and potentially a new QB in Brandon Dawkins, DeBord’s offense simply must improve. If the offense once again plays conservatively and lacks creativity, while also struggling to run the ball, it will be very difficult for this team to win 6 games. In that way, Coach Allen’s fate at IU is in no small measure resting in Mike DeBord’s hands.
At the end of the season, Fred Glass will have a decision to make. If IU wins 6 or more games, that decision is a slam dunk: he’ll extend Tom Allen’s contract by at least 2 years and allow Allen to continue building his program. If the team stumbles to a 5-7 or 4-8 finish, the decision is much harder. It’s probable that Glass will do nothing and allow Allen coach the 3rd year of his 5-year deal, but that will make it harder for Allen to recruit – and an IU football coach never needs added recruiting difficulty. It’s also possible in that scenario that Glass will elect to make a change.6
Because there’s a good chance that Glass will allow Allen to continue as head coach despite failing to make a bowl, 2018 probably isn’t quite a Season On The Brink. But it’s also not the typical Year 2 for a new head coach. The pressure for Allen to show progress is real. Winning 6 games essentially guarantees him the opportunity and the time to build his program. Failing to do so puts that opportunity very much in doubt, while also making it significantly harder to attract talent. One way or another, when the clock hits 0:00 in the Bucket Game this November, we will know much more about the direction of IU football.