Monday, June 23, 2008

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 often to see who’s next...

Team: Minnesota Golden Gophers

Tidbits ... Minnesota's last Big Ten title came way back in 1967. The Golden Gophers boasted one of the top recruiting classes in the Big Ten despite an abysmal season. Minnesota once again plays no one out of conference that resides in a BCS league.

Past Predictions/Results:
2007 Prediction/actual: 5-7, 1-7 (T-10th)/ 1-11, 0-8 (11th)
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: 8 offense, 7 defense, 2 kickers

Key Returnees: QB Adam Weber, WR Eric Decker, TE Jack Simmons, DE Willie VanDeSteeg, LB Deon Hightower, P Justin Kucek

Key Losses: C Tony Brinkhaus, WR Ernie Wheelwright, FS Dom Barber

Looking Back ... Last season was ugly - no ifs, ands or buts about it. Granted, two of the losses came in overtime, and six came by seven points or less but eleven losses, after firing Glen Mason and the run of bowl games? Lucy, you got some 'splainin to do!

Outlook - Offense ... The Gophers return plenty of offensive firepower from a team that could move the ball and score last season. Adam Weber is now seasoned and his favorite target - the leading (statistical) returning receiver in the Big Ten - Eric Decker, returns as well. Minnesota may in fact boast a more aerial attack than in recent memory, when tandems of backs would waltz through all comers. Only one back with decent experience - Duane Bennett - returns and the leading rusher from last year was Weber. The offensive line is green, with a bit less experience than in seasons past.

Outlook - Defense ... The biggest hindrance in Minnesota's efforts to win more last year was 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. Last year, Minnesota was dead last in the NCAA in total defense and gave up a jaw-dropping 518.7 yards and 36.7 points per game. The good news is that things can only get better. The bad news? Many of the same players return. Perhaps the change at defensive coordinator will make a difference. One thing is for sure, if the defense doesn't markedly improve, the record won't either.

Outlook - Special Teams ... Although Minnesota needs to get more out of its return game, the kicking game should be a strength. Led by potential Ray Guy candidate Justin Kucek, the Gophers will hope the defense can use his pinning skills to create a win in the field position game, and ultimately on the scoreboard.

9/6 - at Bowling Green
9/27 - at Ohio State
10/4 - INDIANA
10/11 - at Illinois
10/25 - at Purdue
11/15 - at Wisconsin
11/22 - IOWA

Key Games: 9/6 at Bowling Green, 9/27 - at Ohio State, 11/8 - MICHIGAN, 11/15 - at Wisconsin, 11/22 - IOWA

Prediction ... Well, it can't get much worse! The OOC slate seems easier, but both Bowling Green and Florida Atlantic hung "Ls" on the Gophers in 2007. Playing at Ohio State, Illinois and Wisconsin is no picnic and the last three games are potentially brutal. I am expecting some "corner turning" even if it requires baby steps...

OOC: 2-2 (wins over Northern Illinois and Montana State)
B10: 2-6 (win over Northwestern and Iowa)
Overall: 4-8, T-9th in the conference

Friday, June 06, 2008

Three minutes to breathe...
I have literally been slammed to the point of annihilation at work for the past three months with no real apparent end in sight. However, I wanted to get a fresh post up here for you all to start talking football.

Will I get to my annual, team-by-team epics this summer? Doubtful. I do promise some sort of preview though - between work, golf, 4th grade tournament basketball, and summer vacations!

Meantime, start the fodder... or join the pair that already tried to fan the smoldering grasses...