OK so getting two or three previews was not possible last week, just blame Jake Heaps for making his announcement early for not getting the ever so important 2009 non-conference team previews.
A quick recap from last year for Minnesota's season: the Gophers went 4-0 in their cupcake non-conference schedule, and then 7-1 before losing their last five games. Also, the only team they beat with a .500 record or above was the 6-6 Bowling Green out of the MAC, and then 7-6 Florida Atlantic out of the Sun Belt.
The one great thing going for the Gophers is wide receiver Erick Decker who was a force with over 1,000 yards on the season, and Minnesota also returns their top runner and top quarterback. The chart below represents the team's top returning skill position players.
|Rushing||Carries||Total Yards||Yards Per Carry||TD|
|Receiving||Receptions||Total Yards||Yards Per Catch||TD|
Offensively, the Gophers were a one-man show with receiver Eric Decker, and after a few games the opposing teams tried to slow him down. Minnesota's offense averaged only 23.2 per game which was 83rd nationally and defensively were only slightly better at 61st nationally while giving up 24.8.
The 2008 season could have been a fluke with their non-conference schedule very weak with the 75 rating according to the 2008 Sagarian ratings. Then looking at the all-knowing Phil Steele, he has Minnesota's 2009 schedule ranked 11th toughest based on the 2008 opponents win-loss record.
The Big 10 historically has been a running conference, and then pass when needed. Minnesota seems to be doing the opposite, and they should since they have a big time receiver in Eric Decker who put up big numbers.
The Gophers will still try to sling the ball, but will move back to a more traditional pro-style offense from the spread they tried to run in 2008. Minnesota brings in a new offensive coordinator in Jed Fisch who most recently was coaching in the NFL for the past eight seasons.
The main importance for Minnesota to attempt to get their playmaker the ball is to first: Develop a running game that gained only 103 per game and ranked 105th nationally.
Their passing game was 55th, but when they played good opponents they struggled to do anything with the ball, and their is evidence with the 55-0 beat down by the hands of Iowa. The running game should be much improve with the return of Duane Bennett who is returning from knee surgery, and the addition of top junior college prospect Hayo Carpenter who will help ease the pressure off Eric Decker.
They do return eight starters on offense and half of those come from the most under-looked position by fans which is the line. The 2009 Gophers return four starting offensive lineman, and typically when a team has experience on the line they will be a good team.
There is hope for this 2009 team to be better from 2008, but the win total may not reflect that with their tougher non-conference games against Syracuse, Air Force, California, and South Dakota State (well, not the last one).
Defensively the Gophers were in the bottom quarter nationally on defense ranking 81st out of 120 in the nation, all while giving up 383 yards per game.
Their defense will have a tough time defending the Air Force run option, because this will be the only time Minnesota sees that offense and that they were at the bottom nationally on rush defense.
The defense does return seven players, but when a defense is not all that great does that really matter? Minnesota could have success against the Falcons' option attack with speed at linebacker and the secondary. Assignments will be key, but if the Gophers second and third level defenders have as much speed or more than the Falcons that could limit the big time plays the option is known to produce.
The front line does need to replace their top pass rusher from last year—Willie Van De Steeg—and bring the pressure to the quarterback. The top replacement looks to be Cedric McKinley. The rushing defense will be anchored by two very large men in Garrett and Eric Small, and they will need to step up against the Air Force run attack and try to slow it down.
The defense did improve greatly from coach Tim Brewster's tenure from year one where the team was dead last nationally up to 80th last year. Again, that could be attributed to the lackluster schedule early on, but one indicator that shows how good a defense is, is the turnover margin. Minnesota was plus-12 which translates to plus .92 per game and a national ranking of 16.
The offense plays a part in that number, but so does the defense in getting that to a positive number. In this matchup, specifically Air Force will need help in the secondary, because of the talent and speed that the Minnesota receivers posses.
Also, the Falcons will need to settle in on who will be their starting quarterback in either Tim Jefferson or Asher Clark. Jefferson was a true freshman who put up good numbers last year, but is in academic limbo since the spring, and Asher Clark played running back last and is making the move to quarterback but suffered an injury in the spring.
That situation should be figured out by then, but this game really could go either way because Air Force is always fundamentally sound and keep most games close. The week before both teams play inferior opponents—both who should win—with Minnesota coming off a game against Syracuse and Air Force playing FCS punching bag Nicholls State.
"Air Force has this one circled on their calendar."
While that may be true—since it is a BCS school on the road—in reality if one were to get a truthful answer from someone at the Academy this game ranks sixth out of 12.
Ranked ahead of this game would be both service academies and the TCU, BYU, and Utah. The last three schools mentioned and Navy are going to be better than Minnesota and the Army game is for the Commander-in-Chief trophy.