Who Will Be the Surprise Team in the Big Ten in 2013?

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Who Will Be the Surprise Team in the Big Ten in 2013?
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

It seems like every year someone rises from out of nowhere to put together a solid season and completely blow past expectations on the way to at least a decent bowl bid.

There are 12 candidates for such a jump in 2013—well, 11, really; suffice it to say there's not much Ohio State has left to accomplish that could "surprise" anyone—and there's a case to be made for basically everyone making a leap.

Michigan chopping down its loss total dramatically and making a run at the Big Ten Championship is eminently plausible in 2013; the drop in schedule difficulty alone makes Michigan a contender for top-20 status. Michigan State's glut of first-year starters in 2012 will be better prepared for the Big Ten grind, and typically close losses are not a year-to-year problem in college football.

Also, Iowa was hampered by injury in 2012 and frankly has nowhere to go but up in terms of offensive production, and Northwestern brings back a strong core of starters to help show 2012 was no fluke.

Meanwhile in the Leaders Division, Indiana brings back 19 starters—tied for best in the nation—and wasn't too far removed from a bowl bid in 2012. Illinois can't possibly be worse...or so one hopes.

The expectation for Wisconsin would be a step back after Montee Ball and most of the coaches departed, but one underestimates the Badgers at one's own peril. Similarly, Penn State lost most of its defense, but that could be the strongest, best-coached offense in the Big Ten by the end of 2013.

We're going in a different direction, though. There's another team, one that has been flying well under the radar for years, and deservedly so. 2013 is a new year, however, and it just might be the year of Jerry Kill and the Minnesota Golden Gophers.

Here's why.

 

The Coach

Leon Halip/Getty Images

Few coaches in the country have a proven track record of turning around BCS-level programs. We're not talking about what Urban Meyer did at Ohio State; that's still Ohio State. We're talking about taking a have-not and at least putting it into contention with the haves, and it looks like Jerry Kill is on that path with Minnesota.

Kill inherited a team that was an unbelievable mess post-Tim Brewster, and in his first year Minnesota was bad. The Gophers dropped home dates with New Mexico State and North Dakota State—hard to tell which team was worse, and NDSU is an FCS program—and gave up over 30 points a game against a middling schedule.

Cut to 2012 and Minnesota is winning the games against bad competition that it was losing before. Only two of the Gophers' six wins were against bowl teams and one of those teams was the inestimably bad Purdue, so it's not as if Minnesota's "there" yet, but that's a pretty dramatic one-year leap for Kill and his crew.

It looked as if the Gophers would cap off the season with a stunner in the Meineke Car Care Bowl against heavily favored Texas Tech, but poor quarterback play late doomed the Gophers in the 34-31 loss.

At the very least, though, Kill's performance getting his Gophers ready for that game (he installed a Power I offense that caught Texas Tech completely off guard) reinforced the fact that he's a talented coach, and that ability doesn't just go away.

 

The Returning Starters

Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Quarterback? Check—Minnesota welcomes back Philip Nelson, a sophomore-to-be who burned his redshirt midway through the 2012 season and earned a starting role. He was decent right away and he'll be significantly better as he matures into his role and gets used to the speed of the college game. That usually happens in the second year on the field. Nelson has dual-threat capability and if he gets rid of the passing jitters (which are typical for true freshmen), he will be a major factor in the Gophers' success.

Running back? Check—Minnesota welcomes back senior Donnell Kirkwood, who barely missed out on a 1,000-yard season and is one of the sturdiest, most well-rounded backs in the conference. He can play all three downs for the Gophers and tote the rock in short-yardage situations, and Minnesota also has talented sophomore Rodrick Williams Jr., who's another bigger back but has surprising versatility.

Offensive line? Check, check, check, check and check—Minnesota returns literally every single offensive lineman on its roster, so by necessity the Gophers return all five starters (unless a backup works his way into the starting five, in which case it's an upgrade). Cohesion and experience are enormous for offensive lines, and their improved play is going to be crucial in keeping Nelson and Kirkwood upright in whatever scheme Kill designs for his personnel.

 

The Schedule

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Minnesota is probably starting the 2013 season 5-0. Its non-conference schedule is deliriously easy (including a trip to New Mexico State, which counts as both a completely inexplicable road game and a revenge game), and a home game against fading rival Iowa greets the Gophers' path into the Big Ten. Ohio State is off the schedule this year, though Minnesota's unlucky enough to miss both Illinois and Purdue.

Still, two of the Gophers' four road games are at Indiana and Northwestern, two venues that scarcely count as "home-field advantages," and Wisconsin may be just green enough under first-year head coach Gary Andersen that the Gophers can muscle a win at TCF Bank Stadium.

 

It's way, way too early to be making predictions for the 2013 season. Way too early. The recruits aren't even on campus and we don't know who's going to make it through the spring and summer and who either won't stay healthy or won't stay on campus for whatever other reasons. There are also guys making "the leap" that nobody can see coming and they'll have impacts on the year.

That being said, at this point in early February, 8-4 looks like an eminently reasonable goal for the Gophers. Yes, that's only two games ahead of where Minnesota was last year, but the Big Ten is going to be stronger in 2013 than it was in 2012, and there's a bigger difference in competence between 8-4 and 6-6 than there is between 6-6 and 4-8. Going 8-4 requires the ability to win half the conference games, and for the first time in quite a while, Minnesota looks strong enough to do that.

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