INDIANAPOLIS – Indiana football's word for the year is “chase.”
Each season under coach Tom Allen, the Hoosiers have chosen a word that they believe defines their goals for the campaign. This year, Allen said, they're chasing greatness. In the Big Ten, that means they're pursuing Ohio State.
“They are the gold standard and that's who we're chasing,” Allen said of the Buckeyes at Big Ten Media Days in Lucas Oil Stadium.
In the College Football Playoff Era, Ohio State's name is synonymous with success in the Big Ten. The Buckeyes have won five of the last seven conference titles and four in a row. Since 2016, no other Big Ten program has represented the league in the CFP, while the team from Columbus has appeared in the end-of-year tournament three times.
As the league's players and coaches gathered at Media Days this week to officially kick off the preseason, a Scarlet and Gray cloud hung over the proceedings. It seems possible that the conference season will be defined – as it was in 2019 and '20 – by one question: Can anyone beat the Bucks?
“It's something that we embrace,” Ohio State junior defensive end Zach Harrison told the Associated Press. “We know that every time we step on the field, we're going to get every team's best. They're going to go 100% that week. They've circled us on their calendar the whole year.”
All those circled dates have been for nothing recently. The Buckeyes have won 20 consecutive conference games since October 2018, including back-to-back undefeated conference marks – plus Big Ten Championship Game victories – in 2019 and 2020.
The last Big Ten team to topple Ohio State was Purdue, which ripped apart the then-No. 2 and undefeated Buckeyes in a shocking 49-20 upset at Ross-Ade Stadium on Oct. 20, 2018.
The Boilermakers will get another crack at ending Ohio State's conference winning streak this season, but this time they'll have to go to Ohio Stadium in mid-November.
“Ohio State has proven they're an elite team in the country,” said Purdue coach Jeff Brohm, who coached the 2018 upset. “They've got great talent, and you watch them play from a coaching standpoint, they're definitely utilizing that talent a great deal. So, yes, they're tough to beat.
“They've got a lot of momentum. You have to play at a high level, you have get them on hopefully a little bit of an off day. ... It's always difficult. But we've got that opportunity.”
The only conference team to come particularly close to beating the Buckeyes in 2020 was Purdue's in-state rival, Indiana. The Hoosiers roared back from a 35-7 deficit in The Horseshoe, eventually falling just 42-35 as quarterback Michael Penix Jr. threw for 491 yards – the second-most in IU history – and five touchdowns.
Allen's emotional speech in the locker room after the loss, in which he called his team special and also loudly insisted “We didn't come here to be close,” went viral on social media, added to the coach's growing legend and increased the perception that Indiana – which hasn't beaten Ohio State in 27 tries since 1988 – is suddenly one of the Big Ten teams closest on the Buckeyes' tail.
The Hoosiers meet OSU in Bloomington this season, hosting the conference favorite Oct. 23.
“They're really good,” Allen said, laughing, when asked what makes Ohio State so difficult to beat. “Speed everywhere on both sides of the football, big athletes.
“I coached in the SEC. I'll never forget the first time we lined up against Alabama, LSU, some of those teams that just looked different than any team I'd ever seen. ... You have to play so well to be able to take advantage of whatever you may be able to get. The way they've dominated our conference the last several years is impressive.”
Allen already pronounced it Indiana's goal to return to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship Game in December. Doing so will likely require a win over the Buckeyes.
“They're the ones in the way,” Allen said.
The problem for the rest of the Big Ten is that Ohio State shows no real signs of stepping aside. True, the Buckeyes lost All-American quarterback Justin Fields, a first-round draft pick of the Chicago Bears, as well as their three starting linebackers, but all-everything receiver Chris Olave is back, as are two of the best offensive linemen in the country in Thayer Munford and Nicholas Petit-Frere.
Oh yeah, and the Buckeyes have their pick of three highly-touted – if green – quarterbacks to replace Fields, plus the No. 2 recruiting class in the country coming to campus in the fall.
Michigan, the Buckeyes' nominal rival that has only beaten Ohio State once in the last 17 years, was the closest Big Ten team in those recruiting rankings, at No. 13 nationally. Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh spoke for his team and likely the rest of the conference when he laid out Michigan's mentality at Media Days.
“We're going to do it or die trying,” Harbaugh said of beating the Buckeyes and winning a Big Ten title.