Minnesota kicked off Big Ten bowl season but came up just short for the second straight year in the Texas Bowl, losing 21-17 to Syracuse. What appeared to be the biggest contributing factor was unsteady play at quarterback, as the season-long struggles in the passing game continued in Houston.
Neither sophomore Philip Nelson (2-of-7 for 18 yards) nor freshman Mitch Leidner (11-of-22 for 205 yards and two touchdowns) could get anything going in the first three quarters of play.
Though Leidner found the hot hand in the fourth quarter when Minnesota stormed back from 14-3 down to take the lead, he could not handle the pressure late in the game to keep the Gophers ahead. Just like that, a job that seemed wrapped up by Nelson heading into 2013 has not been resolved after 13 games and could potentially be a massive question for the program in 2014.
But will this quarterback controversy linger for the next nine months? More importantly, will Minnesota have a chance to compete in the West Division next year if there is no clear leader on offense?
As for the quarterback derby, Minnesota fans will likely have to suffer through this continuing well into the 2014 season. Although coach Jerry Kill had to deal with numerous injuries the past three seasons, he has shown no hesitation to play younger quarterbacks and multiple quarterbacks.
Nelson shared time with Max Shortell (who has transferred) and MarQueis Gray (who graduated), so splitting time is nothing new for him. However, that has perhaps stunted his growth in working through the tough times and becoming a better quarterback as an upperclassman.
As a freshman, Nelson completed only 49 percent of his passes for 873 yards (eight touchdowns, eight interceptions). This season, Nelson improved slightly to 51 percent completions for 1,300 yards and nine touchdowns to go with six interceptions. Nelson also rushed for 350 yards and six touchdowns.
By comparison, in significantly limited play time, Leidner completed 55 percent of his passes for 619 yards and three touchdowns with only one interception. In addition, Leidner contributed seven touchdowns rushing to go with 407 rushing yards.
The statistics are almost even, despite Nelson having significantly more playing time. Even the quarterback ratings are nearly identical, with Nelson sporting a 121.7 rating and Leidner achieving a 121.6 rating. Nelson has more experience, but that will not matter as Leidner has proven just as capable in a short time.
Of course, with Jerry Kill's penchant for playing young players, don't sleep on redshirt freshman Chris Streveler. This third-string quarterback is more of a prototypical dual-threat quarterback, which is what Kill has been trying to mold in place since leaving Northern Illinois for Minneapolis.
Bottom line: expect this quarterback controversy to burn throughout the offseason and well into the 2014 season. Until one of these players takes the job by the reins and improves Minnesota's woeful passing numbers (under 150 yards per game in 2013), this will be a huge problem for the Golden Gophers.
As to the question of whether Minnesota can compete in the 2014 West Division with this controversy, the answer may be revealed by the competition.
Like Minnesota, Nebraska (Taylor Martinez graduating), Illinois (Nathan Scheelhaase graduating), Purdue (nobody stepped up in 2013) and Northwestern (Kain Colter graduating) will be dealing with some holes at the quarterback slot. However, the likely favorites in the division, Wisconsin and Iowa, both have well-established starters coming back next year, one of the key advantages for those teams.
The Gophers have lived off the defense and running game, and both of those should continue to thrive no matter who is taking the snaps. The defense is set to lose only three starters, while star running back David Cobb will almost certainly return for his senior season to go with four returning offensive linemen.
Which means the biggest question for 2014 will be whether the anemic passing game can contribute more and help the Gophers win against the better competition.
Much like the Andrew Maxwell and Connor Cook quarterback derby at Michigan State, this controversy could hold Minnesota back until it gets sorted out, no matter how good the defense and running game is. Hopefully Minnesota can find out who will be the Connor Cook for this team in 2014, preferably in the offseason.
Also like Michigan State, Minnesota will likely not take the next step to win a conference championship or a bowl game unless the quarterback controversy is solved. The blueprint is there for success, but Kill's staff just has to figure out the best option.
But even if the quarterback carousel keeps spinning in TCF Bank Stadium, Minnesota is well-positioned to compete in the upper echelon of the West Division next year. Jerry Kill has turned around yet another program, which is good news for the strength of the conference going forward.
Thanks for reading! Please let me know if you think Minnesota has a quarterback controversy and how that affects the 2014 chances in the comments below. As always, feel free to follow me on Twitter as well for more commentary and updates during bowl season.