A year ago, Illinois, Indiana and Minnesota were near the bottom of the Big Ten standings. Now, those underdogs have climbed out of the cellar to gain credibility, not only within their conference but with voters.
The Illini are bowl eligible for the first time since 2014 after rallying from a 25-point deficit to beat Michigan State. The Gophers moved into the top 10 of the Associated Press poll for the first time in 57 years thanks to a win over Penn State. And the Hoosiers are ranked in the top 25 for the first time since 1994, snapping the longest poll drought among Power Five programs.
“It’s something that our guys do take a lot of pride in, being recognized in that regard,” Indiana coach Tom Allen said Monday. “We also know what comes with that, too: the expectation.”
Their transformations have captivated college football. But the bandwagon is not just reserved for the Midwest.
Area fans have a rooting interest, too.
The coaches in charge of these resurgences — Allen, Illinois’ Lovie Smith and Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck — all had stops here at the high school, college or professional level during their careers. There also are local roots on the rosters of the three programs, all of which made recruiting in Tampa Bay a priority.
A trio of storybook seasons for everyone to share.
“You can imagine the excitement in our locker room,” Smith said after his team’s historic comeback against the Spartans. “It’s just a feeling that everyone should have a chance to go through.”
Local fans might remember the coaches of these turnaround teams from their time spent here.
Tom Allen, Indiana: His coaching career started at the high school level as head coach at the now defunct Temple Heights (1992-94) and continued as the defensive coordinator at Armwood (1995-96). After several college stops, Allen returned to the area as defensive coordinator at USF before leaving for Indiana. He is now in his third full season as head coach with the Hoosiers.
P.J. Fleck, Minnesota: His time in Tampa Bay was brief. Fleck spent the 2012 season as the Buccaneers’ receivers coach under Greg Schiano. After that, Fleck became head coach at Western Michigan (2013-16), then left to take over the Gophers in 2017.
Lovie Smith, Illinois: His Buccaneer ties are deep. Smith was Tampa Bay’s linebackers coach from 1996-2000 and he returned to become the head coach for two seasons (2014-15). A year later, he took over the Illini.
These were the key games that helped Illinois, Indiana and Minnesota rise to prominence.
Illinois 24, Wisconsin 23: James McCourt’s 39-yard field goal as time expired was the difference as the Illini handed the Badgers, ranked No. 6 at the time, their first loss of the season. It was the Illini’s first win over a ranked opponent since 2011. Afterward, Illinois players recorded videos of their celebration and sent them to teammate Bobby Roundtree, a former Largo High standout who suffered a spinal cord injury during a swimming accident in May.
Indiana 38, Nebraska 31: Former Plant standout Whop Philyor caught 14 passes for 178 yards as the Hoosiers won in Lincoln, Neb., for the first time since 1959. The victory last month also made Indiana bowl eligible for the first time in three seasons. “This is a big-time win,” Allen said. “It changes a lot for our program.”
Minnesota 31, Penn State 26: Last week’s win was the Gophers’ first over a top-five opponent in 20 years. The sellout crowd, Minnesota’s first in four years, swarmed the field to celebrate. The Gophers have a two-game lead in the conference’s Western Division with three games to go.
There are several bay area players on the rosters for Illinois, Indiana and Minnesota, including some who have made big impacts. Illini linebacker Jake Hansen, a former East Lake standout, is a Dick Butkus semifinalist. Indiana’s Philyor, was added to the Fred Biletnikoff watch list late last month.
LB Jake Hansen, Jr., East Lake
LB Khalan Tolson, So., Admiral Farragut
DL Bobby Roundtree, Jr., Largo
LB Thomas Allen, So.*, Plant
LB D.K. Bonhomme, Fr., Clearwater Academy
DB Juwan Burgess, So.*, Plant
WR Donavan Hale, Sr., Largo
DL Jonathan King, Fr.*, Tampa Bay Tech
LB Micah McFadden, So., Plant
LB James Miller, Fr.*, Armwood
DL Sio Nofoagatoto’a, Fr., Clearwater Academy
QB Michael Penix Jr., Fr.*, Tampa Bay Tech
WR Whop Philyor, Jr., Plant
DL Tramar Reece, So.*, Clearwater
DB Solomon Brown, Fr., Largo
LB James Gordon IV, Fr., Plant City
DL Mayan Ahanotu, Fr.*, Berkeley Prep
• No. 7 Minnesota at No. 23 Iowa, 4 Saturday TV: FOX
• No. 24 Indiana at No. 9 Penn State, noon Saturday TV: ABC
• Illinois at No. 23 Iowa, noon Nov. 23 TV: BTN