Thursday, May 24, 2007

Big Ten Football Previews – Part I

Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of my annual summer Big Ten football previews. Check back weekly (approximately) to see who’s next...

Team: Minnesota Golden Gophers

Tidbits ... Minnesota's last Big Ten title came way back in 1967. The Golden Gophers led the Big Ten in turnover margin last season (+18). Minnesota plays no one out of conference that resides in a BCS league.

Past Predictions/Results:
2006 Prediction/actual: 4-8, 1-7 (T-9th) / 6-7, 3-5 (T-6th), Insight
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)

*Note, bowl shown only from 2004 on as I did not predict the bowl berths prior to that season.

Returning Starters: 6 offense, 9 defense, 2 kickers

Key Returnees: C Tony Brinkhaus, WR Ernie Wheelwright, WR Eric Decker, RB Amir Pinnix, DE Willie VanDeSteeg, LB Mike Sherels, CB Dominic Jones

Key Losses: QB Bryan Cupito, TE Matt Spaeth, WR Logan Payne, LB Mario Reese, CB Trumaine Banks

Looking Back ... Last season made it five straight bowl berths for the Golden Gophers but the utter debacle against Texas Tech in the Insight Bowl cost Gopher boss Glen Mason his job. Why? Simple, this team has done nothing but safely, quietly reside in the middle of the Big Ten pack over the past several years. There was always a chance to do more and in reality, if not for playing three or four cupcakes to start each season, Mason would’ve been gone long ago.

I will say that Minnesota overachieved a little last year, at least given my lowly preseason expectations. The passing game was more of a strength than ever and another tailback emerged as a game-breaking, go-to guy (Amir Pinnix). That said, 6-7 (3-5) shouldn’t make anyone jump for joy particularly when it includes a bowl game collapse and a near loss to North Dakota State – at home! Tim Brewster is now in charge and he’s known as a great recruiter, but his goal of winning the Big Ten and going to the Rose Bowl – this year – won’t come close to fruition.

Outlook - Offense ... The days of Minnesota punching teams in the mouth and bowling them over with waves of NFL caliber running backs might soon be a distant memory. Not because the Golden Gophers aren’t in good shape at tailback, but rather because new boss Tim Brewster brings a more spread out style to the Twin Cities this fall. Does that mean the Gophers will completely abandon the run and go early Joe Tiller or John L. Smith on the Big Ten? Not necessarily. But you can expect Brewster and his staff to fully utilize receiving weapons like Wheelwright and Decker who both had solid performances this spring. It might take some time for the Minnesota offense to full embrace and adapt to the new style, but with three of the six starters returning residing on the offensive line, the transition might not take as long as some want to think…

The primary area of concern is replacing three-year starting quarterback Bryan Cupito. While Cupito was seemingly always overlooked, he improved every year and provided a lot of leadership for the offense. Two signal callers are in line to step into the starting role. One candidate is junior Tony Mortensen. Mortensen appeared in only three games last year, putting up ten passes, completing two and throwing two interceptions. Redshirt freshman Adam Weber held his own during spring ball. With little to no separation made between the two this spring, it will be a wide open competition when camp opens back up in August. The quarterback of the future may well be incoming recruit - and son of the head coach - Clint Brewster. Brewster comes from a spread offense and might just have a head start on the veterans. No matter who wins out, the Golden Gophers’ offense will only be as good as the man under center.

Last year the dilemma facing Minnesota on the offensive side of the ball was who would fill the void left by the departures of Laurence Maroney and Gary Russell. After then linebacker Alex Daniels bowled over Kent State in the opener it seemed he was going to be the man. That wasn’t the case however as Amir Pinnix re-emerged as an every down back with the ability to break a run on every carry. Pinnix is firmly entrenched this season, particularly because his pass protection has greatly improved. Jay Thomas, who had some success in spot duty last year showed a propensity to stretch the field in the offense this spring and will also be in the mix. Even one of the Big Ten’s best fullbacks, Justin Valentine, got a chance to make some noise despite suddenly being faced with holding a position that doesn’t really exist in the spread offense. It’s a far cry from this time last year and a nice safety net for a new offense – a stable full of capable tailbacks.

One of the challenges of moving from a run first offense to the spread is finding enough quality receivers to move in and out of the game. Offensive Coordinator Mike Dunbar – whose Northwestern offense averaged more than 500 yards per game – has two great starting points in Ernie Wheelwright and Eric Decker but little else is proven behind them. That will need to change as my memory tells me that that particular NU squad had five or six solid receivers in the mix. Tight end Jack Simmons could lend a hand, but more likely it will need to be one of the unknowns on the roster, JUCO transfer Marc Cheatham or one of the other receivers coming in this fall. Back to Simmons, he has the luxury (as do the other TEs) of getting to learn from a head coach that is known for shaping All Pro tight end talent. Ever heard of Antonio Gates? If Minnesota gets some help for the main talent here, it could make life that much easier for a new quarterback…

The front five should be solid, despite the loss of two starters. Fifth year senior Tony Brinkhaus is the heart and soul of the offensive line. He stepped in marvelously last year and lays a rock solid foundation for the offense. Tackle Steve Shidell and guard Ned Tavale also return while guard Tyson Swaggert and tackle Joe Ainslie move on. Shidell is still recovering from a broken leg (late last season) but should be ready to go in August. The offensive line has a tough task at hand heading into this season. It has to learn the nuances of the spread offense and get really good at picking up and protecting against the blitz – the most popular method for trying to throw off a spread attack. If the newcomers can gel with the returning core of the line, it will make life easier for the quarterback and allow for the timing that is so imperative in this type of offense.

In general, this offense has potential. Pinnix, Wheelwright and Decker are all big time playmakers, but they will only shine if Mortensen, Weber or Brewster are reliable and improve with each game. It will be paramount to the success of the Minnesota offense to find more reliable support at receiver and for the offensive line to transition to the spread seamlessly.

Outlook - Defense ... The biggest hindrance in Minnesota's efforts to be more than a middle of the road team in the Big Ten has been the defense. 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. Part of the reason has been the undersized front seven, where often linebackers became defensive linemen and safeties became linebackers and everyone was constantly on their heels. Enter Everett Withers, the new defensive coordinator. Withers brings a fast-paced, attacking style to town and with it, Minnesota hopes to win, rather than lose games on its defense.

Nine starters return on the defensive side of the ball and no one returns more (Purdue and Illinois also return nine). For openers, the entire defensive line is in tact and it is led by defensive leader Willie VanDeSteeg (DE). VanDeSteeg and fellow end Alex Daniels are two of the more underrated pass rushers in the Big Ten and are poised to have big seasons. On the inside Todd Meisel and Neel Allen have good experience and should be good at plugging the gaps. The ability to bring in four experienced players like Garrett Brown, Lee Campbell, Willie Dyson and Otis Hudson is a nice luxury for a team that has often lacked depth up front. The play of the line is a big key for Minnesota. Last year, four of the top six tacklers were defensive backs. That deep penetration by the opposition needs to stop if Minnesota is to have success on defense this season.

Two of three starters return at linebacker, led by Mike Sherels – last year’s leading tackler. Mario Reese has departed and leaves a void, but Deon Hightower has developed into a playmaker. The big question mark is who will replace Reese - last year’s second leading tackler and a good pass rusher? It will most likely be former end Steve Davis who is built far more like a linebacker than a defensive end. Logan U’u a JUCO transfer and John Shevlin anchor the bench of what might be the deepest linebacking corps Minnesota has seen in years. Combined with the starters up front, this might wind up being the best front seven Minnesota has seen in decades…

Three of last year’s top six tacklers and the top two leaders in interceptions return to the secondary. Cornerbacks Dominic Jones and Keith Massey bring leadership and big play ability to the secondary – but Massey did get into some trouble in the spring. Dom Barber snagged four picks last fall and roams the field well at free safety. Trumaine Banks departs and will be missed but toss in Jamal Harris and you have a very solid back four. With a steady group up front, this foursome should be able to take on Coach Withers’ pit bull style and help make the Minnesota defense respectable once more.

Outlook - Special Teams ... Special teams is a real area of focus for Coach Brewster. Dubbed the “Special Forces” by Brewster, it is the coaching staff’s hope that this unit can take big strides forward to give Minnesota another edge on the field. With an offense that could bog down, that means the full special team’s units must be steady. Place-kicker Jason Giannini was not good at all outside of 40 yards last year and needs to be as this team adjusts to a new offensive style. By the same token, punter Jason Kucek needs to be better as kicking in the weather-less dome seven times a year and get his average up to help out both sides of the ball.

9/8 – MIAMI-OH
9/15 – at Florida Atlantic
9/22 – PURDUE
10/6 – at Indiana
10/13 – at Northwestern
10/27 – at Michigan
11/10 – at Iowa

Key Games: 9/1 BGSU, 9/29 OSU, 10/27 at Michigan, 11/10 at Iowa, 11/17 WISCONSIN

Prediction ... At first glance, it looks like Minnesota is going back to the cupcake route that Glen Mason instituted and enjoyed success off of the last few years. However, two of the OOC foes are MAC squads fully capable of beating a rebuilding Big Ten team and North Dakota State was a blocked field goal away from pulling an epic upset in the Homer Dome last fall. I do expect the Gophers to get the Brewster era off on a nice foot, but Big Ten wins are going to be hard to come by. It will be a step back to step forward and Minnesota will be competitive, despite the predicted lapse. The bowl streak ends at five, but teams will know they’ve played Minnesota this year…

OOC: 4-0
B10: 1-7 (win over Illinois)
Overall: 5-7, T-10th in the conference

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

News from around the Big Ten...
It's been a busy few weeks around the Big Ten. Players getting in trouble. Spring football wrapping up. Basketball predictions - already. Here is a smattering of what has hit the news wires, just in case you missed it. Check back later this month when I start my weekly countdown from 11 to 1 that takes us through summer to college football's kickoff.

Spring recap from (This is why you can't report on just what you see one day or read one day. Brian Hoyer is mentioned as not having separated himself at MSU, but all Spartans know that he had an excellent spring, last scrimmage aside, and is the guy the next two seasons. BTW, his poor outing in the spring game might have had something to do with the teams being split up with 1s, 2s, and 3s, not having half his starting line, etc.)

Six Penn State players in hot water

Andy Katz gives his post-draft declaration, revised Top 25 for 07-08

Spring look around the Big Ten

Oh and back to basketball, Oden, Conley Jr. and Cook declare, D.J. White sticks around and the Big Ten is poised to be rock solid again...