Friday, July 14, 2006

Big Ten Football Previews - Minnesota Golden Gophers

Editor's Note: This is the second in a series of my annual summer Big Ten football previews. Stay tuned for the next review at a time and date TBD...

Team: Minnesota Golden Gophers

Past Predictions/Results:
2005 Prediction / actual: 7-4, 4-4 (T-5th), Motor City / 7-5, 4-4 (7th), Music City
2004 Prediction / actual: 6-5, 3-5 (8th), Motor City / 7-5, 3-5 (8th), Music City
2003 Prediction / actual: 9-3, 5-3 (5th) / 10-3, 5-3 (T-4th)
2002 Prediction / actual: 6-6, 2-6 (9th) / 8-5, 3-5 (T-7th)
2001 Prediction / actual: 5-6, 3-5 (T-7th) / 4-7, 2-6 (T-10th)

Returning Starters: 7 offense, 5 defense, 2 kickers

Key Returnees: QB Bryan Cupito, RB Amir Pinnix, FB Justin Valentine, WR Ernie Wheelwright, TE Matt Spaeth, OT Steve Shidell, DE Steve Davis, LB Mario Reese, S Trumaine Banks

Key Losses: RB Laurence Maroney, RB Gary Russell, C Greg Eslinger, OG Mark Setterstrom, DT Mark Losli

Looking Back ... Last season made it four straight bowl berths for the Golden Gophers but excuse me for lacking excitement over yet another appearance in the Music City Bowl. Why? Simple, this team had arguably the two best tailbacks in the nation running behind one of the best O-lines in college football. In my book, that should have had Minnesota in contention for the Big Ten title and not safely, quietly residing in the middle of the Big Ten pack.

I still think Minnesota's lack of ability to get over the hump is a direct result of the 1-AA caliber OOC slate they take on each year. Glen Mason obviously subscribes to the Bill Snyder philosophy of gain experience through easy wins, but nothing better prepares a team for a rugged conference slate like the one the Big Ten throws at you like playing at least one legit, national program early in the season. Until then, this section can be copied and pasted forward for years to come because nothing will change.

Outlook - Offense ... It's hard to argue against the success the machine that is the Minnesota ground game has produced over the last several seasons, but something tells me it won't be so easy to plug and play this year. Key players return, but in my estimation, you cannot lose a Maroney and a Russell as well as two four year starters up front and just expect the same success the following season.

If I'm proven wrong, it will be because of the underrated, underappreciated Bryan Cupito. Each and every year he gets dogged as average at best and more of a role player in an offense that may as well snap it right to the tailback! Cupito is capable of leading this team far beyond my expectations, but this go around, he doesn't have the same trusty line in front of him or nearly unstoppable backs behind him. The good news is, if he gets banged up, Tony Mortensen is waiting in the wings.

Let's cut to the chase. The real question everyone is waiting to see the answer to is whether or not junior tailback Amir Pinnix can help Gopher fans forget about Maroney and Russell. Pinnix isn't as big and bruising as either of his former backfield mates but he is quick. He ran up 206 yards against Michigan State and has potential for certain. The bigger question, however, may be - can Minnesota find the second 1,000-yard potential guy to hand the ball to behind Pinnix?

The good news for Pinnix and company is that with a veteran signal caller and a pair of wideouts like Ernie Wheelwright and Logan Payne, not to mention All-American caliber tight end Matt Spaeth, the pressure will be lighter than in years past. In other words, Minnesota should be able to attack people through the air to keep defenses honest, more so than in recent seasons. The only real fear is lack of experienced depth.

The front five should be good again, despite some key losses. The Golden Gopher coaching staff has always been good at developing the offensive front and backfield. But, remember, it was also working with the same core of players for four years. Now that a few of them have moved on (was Eslinger there for 15 years or what?!) we'll see how good they really are. Steve Shidell and Joe Ainsile are very good tackles, but it will be up the middle - where Eslinger and Setterstrom leave rather large shoes to fill - where this team wins or loses.

In general, this is a potentially dangerous offense but a paper thin one as well. An injury here or there and this team is in big trouble...

Outlook - Defense ... The biggest hindrance in Minnesota's efforts to be a yearly contender in the Big Ten is the defense. There is no question that year in and year out, the offense produces in droves. Plug and play is the name of the game on that side of the ball. The trouble is on the defensive side of the ball. The Golden Gophers annually have a playmaker or two on "D" but lack a total, solid, cohesive unit that can get timely stops at key junctures of Big Ten battles.

Not much changes this year for the Minnesota defense, including the presence of some game breakers. The best on an otherwise average (at best) defense is sophomore defensive end Steve Davis. Davis emerged into a fine playmaker as a somewhat undersized, sometimes fish out of water true freshman in 2005. The trials and tribulations paid off, however, and Davis returns to anchor the Minnesota defense. He is joined by another rising sophomore Willie VanDeSteeg, senior Eric Clark and junior Todd Meisel. But the question in the rough and tumble Big Ten often comes down to depth and there isn't much. An injury to Davis could be devastating.

All three starters return at linebacker, but there is still an overall lack of athleticism. Guys like John Shelvin, Mario Reese, Alex Daniels and Mike Sherels are solid but unspectacular in a conference known for churning out NFL caliber 'backers. Deon Hightower is a name to follow as he could develop into a playmaker - a much needed playmaker - for an average linebacking corps on an average defense.

Despite the loss of strong safety Brandon Owens (injury) this might be the strength of the defense. Keith Massey is young but big and talented and could round into a great cover corner. Dominic Jones is undersized but hits like a ton of bricks and will anchor the group. Former corner Trumaine Banks has experience and moves over from corner and will see plenty of action as well. In the Big Ten, where the pass is becoming as prevalent as the run and there are a boatload of good, experienced quarterbacks, this unit will need to hold its own in order for Minnesota to go bowling this winter.

Outlook - Special Teams ... Special teams is another area with some question marks. There are two placekickers battling it out and it may well be a situation where the hot hand (or leg in this case) gets the nod. That scares me a bit as the fragile psyche of a kicker can haunt a team - just ask Michigan State! The Gophers should be fine at punter, but need more consistency from a guy who gets to kick in a controlled environment for half the season. No question that the return game will be strong. It usually is in Minnesota.

8/31 - Kent State
9/9 - at California
9/16 - TEMPLE
9/23 - at Purdue
10/14 - at Wisconsin
10/28 - at Ohio State
11/4 - INDIANA
11/11 - at Michigan State
11/18 - IOWA

Key Games: 9/9 at California, 9/30 Michigan, 10/14 at Wisconsin, 10/28 at Ohio State, 11/18 Iowa

Prediction ... For a change, the Golden Gophers have one above average out of conference opponent on the slate - California. Still, Kent State, Temple and North Dakota State? What is beating up on those three going to do for you? Not much in the overall scheme of things, except provide three of the few wins I project for Minnesota this fall. In the Big Ten, Minnesota skips Illinois and Northwestern, two much easier shots at "Ws" than the other foes lined up. Just when they don't need it, Minnesota takes a step back.

OOC: 3-1 (loss to California)
B10: 1-7 (win over Indiana
Overall: 4-8, T-9th in the conference

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