Friday, July 24, 2009

Big Ten Football Previews – Part VI

Editor's Note: This is the sixth 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, outdoor, home football game was played on November 21, 1981. It was a win over rival Wisconsin. The six game turnaround in 2008 was the best since the 1960 Gophers went from 2-7 to 8-2.

Past Predictions/Results:
2008 Prediction/actual: 4-8, 2-6 (T-9th) / 7-6, 3-5 (T-6th), Insight
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: 10 offense, 8 defense, 0 kickers

Key Returnees: QB Adam Weber, WR Eric Decker, LB Lee Campbell, CB Traye Simmons

Key Losses: TE Jack Simmons, DE Willie VanDeSteeg, LB Deon Hightower, P Justin Kucek

Looking Back ... If the 2007 season was nothing but ugly, the 2008 season was at least part beauty before it turned beast. The Golden Gophers followed up one win in '07 with seven in its first eight games of '08. It was on track to be more than a great turnaround, but one of epic proportions. That is, until Minnesota hit the skids and limped home with five straight losses, including an ugly shellacking at the hands of rival Iowa. The question going into 2009 is can Minnesota restore the early season momentum en route to another round of marked improvement?

Outlook - Offense ... Your eyes don't deceive you, the following sentence is a direct, well almost direct, pickup from my preview last year: The Gophers return plenty of offensive firepower from a team that could move the ball and score last season - at least through the first eight games. Adam Weber is among the best returning quarterbacks in the league and can still seek out battery mate Eric Decker with hopes of burning opposing defenses. The trouble is, second leading pass catcher Jack Simmons has moved on. But he's the only starter that doesn't return and given the first few classes Coach Brewster has brought in, surely someone will step up. Ideally, the Gophers will get more production on the ground, with Deleon Eskridge and Shady Salamon more than capable of racking up big numbers. If it all clicks, watch out - this could be one of the more prolific attacks in the country.

Outlook - Defense ... Minnesota took a few giant leaps forward at the onset of last season but crashed to earth by giving up 132 points in their last three games, including 55 at Iowa. Eight starters return and eight of the projected starters are seniors. That should mean a more consistent, season-long effort in 2009 - at least theoretically. However, the loss of DE Willie VanDeSteeg will be felt and the loss of safety Tramaine Brock to academics will also hurt. The key will be for the returning group to step it up a notch and hope that the very young depth chart is able to fill the gaps and bring the defense back to total season respectability. Look for Cedric McKinley, Simoni Lawrence, Lee Campbell and Traye Simmons to be the stars for a team that took the ball away in droves last season.

Outlook - Special Teams ... Minnesota will not lack for a return man as both Troy Stoudermire and Marcus Sherels return but the kicking game could be a roller coaster ride for a while. Both kickers have moved on, which means Eric Ellestad and Dan Orseske must step in and step up to provide the Golden Gophers with a shot at improving over last season.

9/5 - at Syracuse
9/12 - AIR FORCE
9/26 - at Northwestern
10/10 - PURDUE
10/17 - at Penn State
10/24 - at Ohio State
11/21 - at Iowa

Key Games: 9/12 - Air Force (Stadium opener), 10/3 - WISCONSIN, 11/21 - at Iowa

Prediction ... Minnesota sure turned the tables on its scheduling tendencies, picking up two BCS conference teams and a tough Air Force team in place of 1-A newbies and lower tier MAC squads. That might bite them this year, although the Gophers certainly have the talent to be as good as last year, if not better. A four game run of at Penn State, at Ohio State, Michigan State and Illinois at home could be make or break for the season.

OOC: 3-1 (lone loss comes to Cal at home)
B10: 4-4 (win over Wisconsin, Purdue, Michigan State and Illinois)
Overall: 7-5, 6th in the conference, At Large Bowl Berth

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