Meet the Most Comically Underrated Team in the Big Ten

Amy DaughtersFeatured ColumnistNovember 18, 2013

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - OCTOBER 26: Mitch Leidner #7 of the Minnesota Golden Gophers hands the ball to teammate David Cobb #27 during the first quarter of the game against the Nebraska Cornhuskers on October 26, 2013 at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Despite hitting the eight-win mark for the first time in a decade and beating Nebraska for the first time since 1960, 8-2 Minnesota is still locked out of the AP Top 25.

The Golden Gophers did sneak into this week’s USA Today Coaches Poll at No. 23, but with 77 votes they are technically the No. 26 team in the AP.

This is a low blow for a program from a BCS conference that has only suffered losses to Iowa and No. 19 Michigan on the road.

Think about it this way: Minnesota is in second place in the Big Ten Legends division—through 12 weeks of play—and still not ranked in the AP.

To put the snub into perspective, check out where other eight-win teams are ranked.

Eight-Win Teams Through Week 12
Texas A&M8-291012
South Carolina8-2121111
Arizona State8-2192217

Again, this is a team that is 4-2 in Big Ten play and won consecutive games at Northwestern, versus No. 24 Nebraska, at Indiana and versus Penn State.

The only other eight-win teams not in the AP Top 25 are 8-2 Cincinnati, 8-2 East Carolina, 8-3 Old Dominion, 9-2 Ball State and 8-2 Louisiana-Lafayette.

So, with the exception of Minnesota, no eight-plus win squad from a “big five” conference (the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC) is ranked outside of the AP Top 25.

Furthermore, LSU (No. 18) and Ole Miss (No. 24)—both 7-3 teams—are ranked in the AP Top 25 while the Gophers are not.

Regardless of schedule, future prospects, statistics or generally accepted beliefs, Minnesota is a shoe-in for “most-shafted program” honors in 2013.

What’s Their Story?

Minnesota came into 2013 with 16 returning starters from its 6-7 product from a year ago, but still carried low expectations.  Phil Steele predicted that the Gophers would finish last in the Legends division and had them at No. 66 nationally in his power rankings.

Though Minnesota ranked No. 45 last season in scoring defense, its No. 96 rank in scoring offense was a major liability. 

Here’s a look at the statistical improvements from one year to the next.

Minnesota Stats: 2012 vs. 2013
2012 RankPer Game2013 RankPer Game
Scoring Offense9622.1 points5730.7 points
Rushing Offense68151.9 yards20218.5 yards
Passing Offense109169.5 yards116149.4 yards
Scoring Defense4524.7 points3523.4 points
Rushing Defense74172 yards38147 yards
Passing Defense12186.6 yards68233.8 yards
College Football Statistics

Despite losing some ground against the pass and making gains versus the run, Minnesota’s defense has produced similar results in points allowed in 2013.  This means that it’s offensive improvements that have fueled the turnaround.

The Gophers have scored 8.6 more points per game this season versus last year and gained 66.5 additional rushing yards per game.

Given that its passing attack has taken a small step backward from a year ago, it’s the running game that is the biggest difference-maker.

This comes down to the play of David Cobb, a junior running back who has already racked up 942 yards and seven scores on 175 carries.

Junior RB David Cobb is on pace to rush for 1000 yards.
Junior RB David Cobb is on pace to rush for 1000 yards.Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Cobb—who rushed for eight yards last season—is averaging 94.2 yards per game and has rushed for 100-plus yards in each of the Gophers' last four games, all wins against Big Ten foes.  This includes 138 yards against Nebraska, 188 versus Indiana and 139 against Penn State.

Cobb is on pace to break the 1,000-yard mark by the end of the regular season.  This would make him Minnesota’s first 1,000-yard back since 2006, when Amir Pinnix ran for 1,272 yards and 10 touchdowns on 252 carries.

The other big gain for the Gophers in 2013 is in turnover margin, which is detailed below.

Minnesota Turnover Margin: 2012 vs. 2013
Fumbles Gained77
Interceptions Gained138
Total Gained2015
Fumbles Lost74
Interceptions Thrown155
Total Lost229
Turnover Margin-2+6
FBS Rank7031
College Football Statistics

Though the numbers for 2012 are for the entire season versus only nine games this season, it’s clear that the major improvement is in ball security.

And the biggest change is 10 fewer interceptions thrown from one year to the next.  This can be credited to the play of sophomore quarterback Philip Nelson, who has thrown only four interceptions this season.

QB Philip Nelson has thrown only four interceptions this season.
QB Philip Nelson has thrown only four interceptions this season.Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

This number marks significant progress versus last season when Nelson, Max Shortell and MarQueis Gray combined to throw 15 picks.

Nelson’s performance in 2013 ties him for the fourth-fewest interceptions thrown in the FBS ranks.

Their Place in Minnesota History…

The last time a Minnesota team posted an 8-2 mark was in 2003. That Gopher team went on to a 10-3 finish including a 31-30 win over Oregon in the Sun Bowl.

Unlike the 2013 squad, the 2003 team was ranked in the AP nine times during the season and finished No. 20 in the AP poll.

Other historic achievements this season are the first win over Nebraska in Minneapolis since 1954, the first win over Penn State since 2004 and the first win over a Top 25-ranked team since 2010.

The Gophers celebrate their 34-23 win over No. 24 Nebraska.
The Gophers celebrate their 34-23 win over No. 24 Nebraska.Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

To keep things in perspective, the last time Minnesota was ranked in the AP was in 2008 when it was No. 25 on Oct. 19 and No. 20 on Oct. 26. 

Since they are already bowl eligible, it’s worth noting that the Gophers’ last bowl appearance was in last year’s Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas (a 34-31 loss to Texas Tech).  Their most recent postseason victory came in 2004, when they beat Alabama 20-16 in the Music City Bowl.

Can They Change the Voters’ Minds?

The good news for Minnesota is that it has two high-profile, meaningful games remaining this season.  Games which could propel it even further than into the AP Top 25.

First up is No. 19 Wisconsin, which the Gophers will host this Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET on ESPN.  If Minnesota can manage its first win over the Badgers since 2003, they’ll crack the AP and more.

A lot of what could happen next will have to do with how No. 13 Michigan State fares against Northwestern this Saturday.  If the Spartans win the game, they’ll clinch the Big Ten Leaders division and go on to face Ohio State in the conference championship game.

A Michigan State loss, on the other hand, would set up a game where the 9-2 Spartans (6-1 in Big Ten play) would face the 9-2 Gophers (5-2 in Big Ten play) for the divisional title and the right to play in the league championship.

Could Minnesota shock the world and make it to the Big Ten championship?
Could Minnesota shock the world and make it to the Big Ten championship?Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

How big would this be?

Well, the last time Minnesota won the Big Ten was in 1967 when it went 8-2 under Murray Warmath and shared the conference title with Indiana and Purdue.

The last time the Gophers went to the Rose Bowl was 51 years ago, in 1962, when they beat UCLA 21-3.

Though it seems far-fetched to say that Minnesota will knock off Wisconsin, Michigan State and Ohio State to win the Big Ten and achieve the BCS, it does have a perfect finishing schedule to earn some well-deserved love.

Yes, if the Golden Gophers can score another win, they’ll be in the AP Top 25 for at least a single week.

A small prize for a program from a power conference which has done just as well Duke, Arizona State or UCF.

Statistics courtesy of ESPN, College Football Data Warehouse, College Football Statistics, Phil Steele and Sports Reference/College Football.


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