Can Gophers improve on 8 wins? Tough sledding ahead

The college football season gets under way this week and tonight (Thursday) the Minnesota Golden Gophers host Eastern Illinois University. Minnesota will look to build on an 8-win season in 2013. With returning starters on both sides of the ball, the Gophers expect big things in 2014. But a tough schedule, including a non-conference road game at TCU, would make getting back to 8 wins in 2014 even more impressive.

2013 Record: 8-5 (4-4 Big Ten) Key wins: Nebraska, Penn State. Key losses: Syracuse (Texas Bowl), Iowa, Wisconsin

The Golden Gophers used their power running game as the main source of offense in 2013. The key to that rushing attack was/is the offensive line. Minnesota returns starters guard Zac Epping, center Tommy Olson and right tackle Josh Campion. The coaching staff is finally seeing the fruits of their recruiting labor on the OL. They have depth with prized sophomore 6’9”, 320-lb tackle Jonah Pirsig, and others, likely to see time.

The defense was a surprise last season. They ranked 5th in the Big Ten in pass defense, 8th in rush defense. Two main cogs of that group are gone. Stud DL Ra’Shede Hageman was picked by the Atlanta Falcons and DB Brock Vereen is trying to win a starting spot with the Chicago Bears. Those two will be tough to replace, but talented veterans Sr. Cedric Thompson, Sr. Derrick Wells and Jr. Eric Murray will hold down the secondary just fine. CB Briean Boddy-Calhoun returns from a knee injury after playing 2 seasons ago. Freshman CB Craig James has stood out in practice and should see time. This may be the best secondary I’ve ever seen in Maroon & Gold, including the Tyrone Carter/Willie Middlebrooks group. It will have to be outstanding because the Gophers will see at least 7 spread offenses this year.

The defensive line returns 3 starters that should help make up for the loss of Hageman. Theiren Cockran, Jr. DE, was a menace on the edge. Cameron Botticelli played alongside Hagemen on the inside, but will need to step up and control the middle. Jr. Scott Ekpe joins Botticelli at D-Tackle. DE Michael Amaefula needs to make more plays opposite Cockran but should get his opportunities. There is some depth on the D-line and that will be important against the punishing offenses of Iowa, Wisconsin and Michigan State, and spread teams like Michigan and Northwestern.

It’s imperative the D-line unit plays well because the weak link of the defense will be the linebackers. Damien Wilson and De’Vondre Campbell bring some experience and play-making ability. But the group is thin and inexperienced after that. Injuries and youth at LB can be masked for a while, but eventually they’ll need to improve and make big stops vs Big Ten running backs and tight ends. Michigan St, Wisconsin and Iowa have proved that excellent LB play can dictate many things on defense. The Gophers still aren’t there at that position.

If Minnesota wants to see any major improvement in 2014 it will have to come in the passing game. With the departure of Phillip Nelson, this is now sophomore QB Mitch Leidner’s team. His running abilities brought a nice element to the ground game, but with David Cobb (1,202 yards in 2013), Donnell Kirkwood, Rodrick Williams, and speedy freshman Berkley Edwards, the Gophers don’t need help running the football. What they do need is for someone who can stretch the field with his arm and players to make plays in space. Minnesota finished last in the Big Ten in passing offense. Sadly, with their ground game finishing in the top half of the league, the passing game only needs to be adequate for the team to improve. Leidner will look to security blanket TE Maxx Williams plenty this season, but WRs Isaac Fruechte (Sr.), Drew Wolitarsky (So.), Donovahn Jones (So.), KJ Maye (Jr.) and others will need to step up. Edwards could be a big playmaker in the passing game. Defenses will pack the box against Minnesota and Leidner will need to stretch defenses and prove he can make throws. Leidner’s health will be huge too, because the back-up QB situation is unsettled and Chris Streveler and Conor Rhoda have no game experience. The receivers need to get more separation and make plays in space. I hate to be this black and white, but the passing game will dictate the success of this team.

Special teams has improved under Jerry Kill and Co. There is some depth there as well. Incumbent P Peter Mortell should win the job. Kickers Ryan Santoso and Andrew Harte are having a good battle. It’s good to have options in case one guy struggles. The return game is strong as well. Electric return man Marcus Jones returns and Berkley Edwards should get some work here as well.

Predictions:

Home vs Eastern Illinois – The Panthers, despite a run in the FCS playoffs, don’t have a chance. No Jimmy Garappolo, no problem for Minnesota. Gophers 42-14.

Home vs Middle Tennessee State – To be honest, like most followers I know nothing about them, other than the Gophers barely squeaked out a victory vs MTSU in one of Tim Brewster’s lost years. Minnesota rolls 35-10.

Road at TCU – This is a huge game for Minnesota. A win almost guarantees 6+ wins, but a loss puts the team in jeopardy of missing a bowl game. The Horned Frogs led the Big 12 in total defense, typical under coach Gary Patterson, impressive considering the offensive juggernauts (Baylor, Ok State, Oklahoma) in the Big 12. Their offense was pretty dreadful though. TCU was 9th out of 10 in the conference in turnover margin. If the Gophers can get and capitalize on turnovers they win. If not, they lose. TCU has some unsettled players at QB and D-line, both advantages for the Gophers. I’ll go with MN in what is sure to be an upset, 24-17.

Home vs San Jose State – Much like Eastern Illinois, the Spartans lose their much-hallowed QB. Losing on the road to Minnesota in 2013 with an NFL-drafted QB doesn’t bode well for SJSU in 2014. Gophers win 31-13.

I’m only previewing the non-conference games today. Too much can happen and I’d like to see the teams in real games before looking at the Big Ten schedule.

Watch for my Wisconsin Badger preview to come shortly.

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