Having recorded 8 wins in a season for the first time since 2003, Minnesota appears to be heading in the right direction under head coach Jerry Kill. They look well coached, physical and solid in every aspect of the game, without the game changing dynamism to turn solid into something more. In 2013, they beat the teams they should have beaten, lost to most of those they should have lost against, and did just enough to tantalize their fan base with the prospect of being a legitimate factor in the Big Ten title chase in 2014.
2013 Minnesota Golden Gophers Season
The season opened with four winnable out of conference games and the Gophers did just that, cruising their way into conference play, and defeats against Iowa and Michigan that made the winning start seem an illusion. However, Minnesota rebounded well from those defeats by playing with a physical edge started to impose themselves on opponents. They lost two more conference games, expected defeats against Wisconsin and Michigan State, but won the other four including a terrific victory over Nebraska, which ended a sixteen game losing streak against the Cornhuskers.
The Gophers a offensive model is simple: run the ball. They passed on just 31.3% of plays last season, preferring to power their way past opponents on the ground.
As with all teams that place a heavy emphasis on the ground game, the key to the Gophers offense is the offensive line, which was decent but not great in 2013. Led by senior guard Zac Epping and tackle Josh Campion, Minnesota return a wealth of experience on the line and should be able to field a useful unit. They lack top tier talent and can be outmuscled by the best defensive fronts, struggling to open running lanes, but have shown they can hold up for the most part.
Senior running back David Cobb led the team with 1202 yards (5.1 average) and 7 touchdowns, as well as being a reliable receiver out of the backfield. He lacks blazing speed, but runs with decent power and has the vision to consistently find the best running lane; an invaluable trait. They have useful depth at the position in Rodrick Williams and Donnell Kirkwood, but it would shock no one if the second leading rusher is once again quarterback Mitch Leidner.
While best described as a work in progress as a passer, Leidner has proven to be an effective runner and red zone threat, notching 7 touchdowns as a freshman in 2013. Leidner does not exactly play like the prototype dual-threat quarterback, his running style is that of a bull in a china shop, rather than that of a dynamic playmaker, but it works. Leidner shared the quarterback role for much of last season, starting out as a backup and novelty short yardage quarterback, and gradually earning a larger role. As a result his experience as a passer is limited, throwing just 78 passes for 619 yards, 3 touchdowns and 1 interception. His development as a passer has been a major point of emphasis this off-season and reports have suggested it is working. If true, it will give the Gophers offense and edge it lacked last season.
Minnesota is not exactly blessed with great receiving options. They are young and largely unproven, but they do have one legitimate playmaker in tight end Maxx Williams. A versatile player with good size and athleticism, Williams is a potential mismatch for Leidner to exploit. He led the team last season with 25 receptions for 417 yards and 5 touchdowns.
Minnesota must replace both defensive tackles, losing the defenses enigmatic star player Ra'Shede Hageman, but return junior defensive end Theiren Cockran who led the team with 7.5 sacks last season and promises to be even more impressive this time around. Cockran is long limbed and athletic, he is only going to get better as he adds more bulk and power to his frame. While there will be two new starters on the inside, both are experienced players who saw plenty of playing time in 2013, and should hold up well. The greater issue is one of depth, which looks thin and very young. The Gophers need them to settle into the rotation swiftly to avoid any drop off.
The story is similar at linebacker where the Gophers again have experienced starters with youth behind them. However, Damien Wilson and De'Vondre Campbell, both recruited from the junior college ranks in 2013, potentially have two of the best linebackers in the Big Ten. Wilson, a senior, is an accomplished, hard-hitting, and instinctive middle linebacker and is the leader of the defense. While Campbell is a tall, rangy outside linebacker of tremendous potential, he has bulked up to cope with B1G play and looks set to breakout in 2014.
Minnesota have lost their leading cornerback, but have a number two in Eric Murray ready to take over as the team's top corner. They also return return both safeties, Cedric Thompson and Antonio Johnson, and have experienced options for the second corner spot. Murray is the star of the unit, as he showed better than expected cover skills throughout 2013 and hits like a safety, which is an added bonus.
The Gophers were consistently solid on special teams in 2013, but the unit is set to look a little different in this season. Redshirt freshman Ryan Santoso starts at kicker, and returning punter Peter Mortell is still fighting to hold off a challenge from Christian Eldred for his job. Things are more settled on returns where Marcus Jones will once again field kicks and punts, having excelled with both last season.
2014 Season Outlook
Games against Eastern Illinois, Middle Tennessee, and San Jose State give Minnesota the chance to reach conference play with three wins under their belt, but a trip to Fort Worth to play TCU makes a 4-0 start unlikely. Conference play opens with the fight for the Little Brown Jug at the Big House, but they were embarrassed in last year's contest and will be keen to give a better account of themselves. After that trip to Ann Arbor, the Gophers enter a stretch of season defining of games, as they host both Northwestern and Purdue, before traveling to Illinois. Win them and Minnesota are probably bowl eligible and carrying momentum into the final third of the season. That momentum will be essential if they are to pick up wins against Iowa, Ohio State, Nebraska and Wisconsin.
Minnesota's heavy reliance on their ground attack worked for them for the most part, but if they are serious about reaching the upper echelons of the Big Ten, a more effective passing attack is a must, edging the run:pass ratio closer to 60:40, and adding a little more dynamism to the offense. If they cannot do that, then the Gophers ceiling is solidity, the sort of team that can consistently crank out 7-8 win seasons, but always finds itself outmatched against the bigger teams. However, adding a little dynamism turns a solid team into a dangerous one.