Breaking Down the Big Ten Part One: The Minnesota Golden Gophers

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Breaking Down the Big Ten Part One: The Minnesota Golden Gophers

The last time the Golden Gophers won a Big Ten title was 1967. The last time the Golden Gophers went to the Rose Bowl was 1962. The Gophers travelling trophy case has been empty during coach Tim Brewster's entire three-year tenure.

Last season, in Tim Brewster's third season, Minnesota seemed to take a step backward from 2008.

They wound up with a 6-7 record. This was a similar record to the previous season's 7-6, but under both previous coach Glen Mason and Brewster, the Gophers have been known for blowing out a cupcake out-of-conference schedule followed by a late season collapse.

Last season, they were intermittently awful, managing to scratch out a 16-13 late-season victory over FCS South Dakota State Jackrabbits, a win which ultimately clinched a bowl berth.

The season culminated in an Insight Bowl loss against the Iowa State Cyclones.

The Insight Bowl was the least viewed game of the bowl season. As I was apparently one of the few that watched it, I can say it really looked like two teams that had no desire to accept the win. Eventually, Iowa State must have gotten tired of pussyfooting around, and they begrudgingly took the victory.

So, what can we look forward to this season in Minneapolis and the second year of their new TCF Bank Stadium?

Unfortunately, if you're a Gopher fan, it doesn't look good.

 

The Offense

In 2009, Minnesota's offense ranked dead last in the Big Ten. This was despite the fact that they returned their quarterback and most of their skill players.

In fairness, there were a number of new faces on the line, and the offense got decimated by injuries, most notably to their All Big Ten receiver, Eric Decker.

However, none of that fully explains the continuing regression of their quarterback Adam Weber.

During 2007, his freshman year, he posted a respectable 120.8 efficiency rating. His sophomore campaign saw him improving minimally to 126.94.

Nevertheless, last season, his third as a starter, saw him collapsing to 114.65. Furthermore, he threw 15 interceptions to 13 touchdowns.

He fell apart down the stretch after Decker went down, completing less than 50 percent of his passes against his final four opponents.

Moving forward, Eric Decker is gone. So is Minnesota's second leading receiver, Nick Tow-Arnett.

On the other hand, they do return their entire offensive line, top two rushers and have three talented, if raw, junior wide receivers in Da'Jon McKnight, Troy Stoudermire and Brandon Green.

They also have a talented, dual threat backup quarterback in MarQueis Gray, who Brewster used a good deal in wildcat packages.

Given Brewster's erratic coaching tendencies, as well as Weber's seemingly erratic play, it is possible that Gray will take over as the starter.

Either way, despite all the returning players on the offense, I would argue the success of the O will depend on the quarterback play, regardless of who gets the majority of snaps.

I will also note that the success of the team depends on the offense. The reason for this is...

 

The Defense

The defense returns exactly two players—safeties Kim Royston and Kyle Theret.

There is also some experience in lineman Anthony Jacobs and defensive backs Ryan Collado and Michael Carter.

That is all. Outside of those players there is not another returning start on the entire roster.

Teams projected to have dominant offensive lines, like Wisconsin and Ohio State, probably won't have to throw a single pass to score on the Gophers.

Last season, Minnesota's defense finished a respectable sixth in the Big Ten. Expect that number to drop, especially in light of how much experience a number of Big Ten offenses will be returning.

Given the lack of returning experience, it is difficult to project anything specifically.

Brewster is a fairly blitz-happy coach. That, coupled with inexperience at the corners and a green D-line and linebacking crew will probably mean Minny will give up a fair number of big offensive plays, both on the ground and through the air.

In short, teams are likely to score on Minnesota. In effect, it will be up to the offense to control the ball and put points on the board to give Brewster's boys a chance at success.

 

The Schedule

After travelling to Middle Tennessee, the Gophers host South Dakota, USC, and Northern Illinois. Despite USC's new head coach, Minny will lose to the Trojans.

They should beat South Dakota, and can beat Northern Illinois, though they may have trouble with Middle Tennessee.

The Big Ten Schedule is as follows: NU, @Wis, @Pur, PSU, OSU, @MSU, @Ill, bye week, Iowa.

The good news is they get OSU, PSU and Iowa at home. The further good news is that they don't play Michigan, who may or may not be good in 2010.

The bad news is it might not matter. Ultimately, there is no way the Gophers will beat the elite teams—OSU, Iowa, Wisconsin, and PSU—of this year's Big Ten.

Furthermore, MSU and NU are unlikely wins.

For Minnesota to get to six wins this season, they will need to go 3-1 out of conference, beat Illinois and Purdue, and probably upset Michigan State or Northwestern.

If they do that, given this year's team, six wins and a bowl game would have to be considered a success.

 

Intangibles

Phil Steele has a theory that turnovers, which are so often the difference maker in games, are somewhat lucky. Furthermore, said luck, in this case, is somewhat predictable based on the previous season's turnover margin.

In effect, a team that has inexplicable luck (i.e. is the beneficiary of a number of turnovers) in Year A can expect the opposite in Year B.

Minnesota was ranked seventh in the Big Ten in turnover margin with -.08. In other words, turnovers, at least as far as the Phil Steele model goes, should not be a factor, at least not when it concerns preseason predictions.

On the other hand, as previously mentioned, their offense got decimated by injuries last year. That equals a deep and deceptively experienced offense this season.

It's almost unfortunate, in a way, that the defense was spared that same fate given the aforementioned lack of experience in 2010.

Another intangible is the Minnesota coach himself. Tim Brewster, who, previous to landing the Gopher job, had never been at the head of any team, is like Illinois coach Ron Zook.

He's a big recruiter and a big motivator , but his on-the-field coaching, player development and game-planning have left something to be desired.

Look no further than the Insight Bowl where his insistence to play MarQueis Gray over Adam Weber in certain situations led to two fumbles and the game slipping away.

In four years at the helm of Minnesota, he has replaced his offensive coordinator three times. This might explain Adam Weber's regression. 2010 will see the Gophers attempting to get things working under new O-coordinator, Jeff Horton.

Finally, there are issues of injuries and legal troubles, even before the season has began. The first game may be over four months away, but none of this bodes well for Minnesota.

 

Worst Case Scenario

The defense is as bad as expected. The offense once again is beset with injuries and never quite develops any continuity. Adam Weber struggles under yet another system and another coordinator.

After the eighth game, facing a 2-6 record, Brewster essentially calls it quits on the season and starts working toward 2011. He benches Weber and exclusively starts Gray.

Final Record: 2-10, no wins in conference.

 

Best Case Scenario

The defense, while not spectacular, is adequate and does just enough to keep Minnesota in most games.

Meanwhile, Weber jibes with the new offense and comes back to form. He doesn't deliver an All-Big Ten performance, but he is solid and keeps the offense out of trouble.

Meanwhile, the Gophers have two rushers with over 500 yards.

In the end, the Gophers go 3-1 out of conference, beat Purdue, Illinois and Northwestern, and give a bit of a scare to one or two of the Big Ten's better teams.

This puts them at 6-6, and returns them to the Insight Bowl where they finally beat a lesser tier team from the Big 12 North.

 

My Prediction

Expect the worst. This is not going to be a pretty year in the Twin Cities. If it were a weaker year in the Big Ten, perhaps the Gophers would have a shot, but this season the conference will be extremely strong.

Will things be so bad that Tim Brewster's job will be in jeopardy? It would appear not as he just signed a new contract, but that was primarily for recruiting purposes and included a rather inexpensive buyout. If the Gophers do as poorly as I predict they will, expect Minnesota to be looking for a new coach next season.

Final Record: 2-10.

 

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