14 Teams in 14 Days: Minnesota Golden Gophers
The Gophers are coming off their best season since 2003 and have increased their win total in each of the three seasons under the leadership of head coach Jerry Kill. However, the schedule gets a bit more difficult in 2014.
The talent is there to be better than they were a year ago. "I'm not one that guarantees a number of wins, but we'll be better," Kill says.
While Minnesota started off a house of fire, winning eight of their first ten by an average of 15 points per victory, the majority of that winning margin came against non-conference foes. Within conference the Gophers suffered double digit losses to Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin and Michigan State. Their four conference wins were by a combined 41 points.
While Kill deserves praise for getting Minnesota to eight wins and back-to-back bowl appearances, one can't help but point out they are 0-2 in those Bowl games and finished 2013 with an 8-5 mark after starting 8-2.
Shortly after their loss in the Texas Bowl to Syracuse, the Gophers were informed by quarterback Phillip Nelson that he was transferring. Nelson started the Texas Bowl but split time with Mitch Leidner as the Gophers primary quarterback. In January Nelson announced he was transferring to Rutgers, but has since been dismissed from the team following his involvement in an assault.
Leidner started four games for the Gophers in 2013 and had a higher completion percentage than Nelson. Leidner led the Gophers to a come-from-behind victory over Western Illinois and got his share of time when Nelson was lost to an injury in the middle of the season. Viewed as more of a drop-back passer, he did become the first Gopher quarterback since 1967 to rush for four touchdowns in a single game. Kill's faith in Leidner was evident when Nelson decided to leave the University.
David Cobb returns for his senior season as the Gophers primary ball-carrier. He become the first Minnesota back to rush for over 1,000 yards since Amir Pinnix did so in 2006. Cobb opened 2013 third on the depth chart at running back, but injuries to both Donnell Kirkwood and Rodrick Williams thrust him into a starring role. Both Kirkwood and Williams are back this year, as is highly touted incoming freshman Jeff Jones. Jones was rated as the 7th best running back in the class of 2014 by Rivals, but there are questions over his academic eligibility in 2014.
Receiver remains a question for Minnesota. Derrick Engel led the team in receiving last year before tearing his ACL. He's since graduated. The primary pass-catcher in 2013 was tight end Maxx Williams. He's back and is joined by fellow tight ends Drew Goodger and Nate Wozniak. The Gophers relied a lot on underclassmen in the passing game last year and figure to do the same in 2014.
The defense is tasked with replacing impact defensive lineman Ra'Shede Hageman. He led the team with 13 tackles for loss in 2013, yet only managed two sacks. Also gone is Hageman's partner in the middle Roland Johnson, Minnesota's run-stopping specialist. The Gophers do return their team leader in sacks, Theiren Cockran (7.5) and he figured to be asked to lead this group in 2013.
Cody Poock was the early favorite to replace Aaron Hill at outside lineback, but an ACL tear during spring practice put his 2014 season in jeopardy. Damien Wilson is back at middle linebacker and his backup, Jack Lynn figures to replace Poock on the outside.
Brock Vereen was a four-year starter for the Gophers at safety. Vereen was a steady presence in the secondary that will be difficult to replace. Eric Murray is back for his junior season and has quietly become one of the premier cover-corners in the B1G Ten. Back from injury and joining Murray in the secondary are Derrick Wells and Briean Boddy-Calhoun. Of the two, Boddy-Calhoun has the best chance at making an early impact.
|8/28||vs EASTERN ILLINOIS|
|9/6||vs MIDDLE TENNESSEE|
|9/20||vs SAN JOSE STATE|
|11/15||vs OHIO STATE|
Kill says the talent is there in 2014, and he may be right, but the schedule is also more difficult than it was a season ago. An early season non-conference road test with TCU won't be easy and in conference play the Gophers have road contests with Michigan, Nebraska and Wisconsin while Iowa and Ohio State come to Minneapolis. The Gophers were 1-3 last year against those same teams (didn't face Ohio State). If they're looking for the type of improvement Kill is talking about, they need to go 3-2 in those games.
Kill is the biggest question mark surrounding this team. He entered 2013 as the lowest paid coach in the B1G Ten, but it was his health that concerns school officials more than his coaching pedigree. Kill suffered an in-game seizure against Western Illinois last year which kept him from traveling to Michigan for their contest against the Wolverines. It was his fourth documented seizure during a game day since taking over at Minnesota in 2011.
Kill was able to gradually resume his duties following the seizure last year and coached the final seven games from the press box. The team and University has shown they're committed to him, but the disruption that comes when Minnesota is led by a different coach on game days certainly weighs on its players.
There is some talent there, but a lot of it is young and the schedule is more difficult that it was a season ago. Look for 2014 to be the first time under Kill that the Gophers won fewer games they did the previous year.