Don't look now, but the Minnesota Golden Gophers are 6-1 and currently fourth in the admittedly weak Big Ten Conference. While this may not seem that big of a deal to the untrained eye, it is quite an achievement for a team that went 1-11 in 2007, easily the worst statistical season in the school's 124-year history of the football program.
For a team that generally finishes in the lower half of its conference and hasn't won its conference since 1967, had a Heisman Trophy candidate since Bruce Smith (no, not that one) in 1941, or had a player in the College Football Hall of Fame since 1962, this is quite an accomplishment.
Even though they haven't won anything yet.
At 6-1, coming off two consecutive conference wins over Indiana at home (their first conference win in nine tries dating back to 2006) and in Champaign, Illinois over the much-overrated Juice Williams and his Illinois team, the Gophers are already bowl eligible. How many other teams can say that?
While they will likely need seven to be assured of a bowl, their favorable schedule appears to make that a formality—and a lot more. It's easy to point out that they haven't beat a ranked team yet and are unranked themselves, but that time is coming.
The Gophers got two gifts in skipping Penn State and Michigan State and Javon Ringer entirely, and their conference is most notably down this year.
Michigan, coming off their most recent embarrassing game against subpar competition in losing to Toledo in the once-famed "Big House" in Ann Arbor, is clearly on the decline. Ohio State still has games to play at Michigan State and Penn State that could decide their conference fate.
Ironically, it could come down to Northwestern vs. Minnesota on Nov. 8 to decide who will finish second in the division behind my pick, Penn State.
Why is second place so important? First, if last year is any indication, second place could be good enough for the fabled Rose Bowl, just as Illinois represented the Big Ten last year. Next, with one win last year, an improvement of 9-10 games is not out of the question.
Minnesota's last five games are:
Home vs. Northwestern
Home vs. Michigan
AT (On?) Wisconsin
Home vs. Iowa
It is not inconceivable in this down year for the conference to believe that Minnesota could finish 10-2 or 11-1. If that happens, Minnesota, which hasn't had a National Coach of the Year since 1960, would have a great candidate in second-year coach Tim Brewster and a virtual lock for Big Ten Coach of the Year.
To understand the Gophers' seemingly quick turnaround, it all starts, and ends, with Brewster, who arrived on the scene with no head coaching experience. He was hired Jan. 17, 2007 to little national media fanfare.
Known as a master recruiter and talent evaluator, Brewster was able to land a top 25 recruiting class in 2007 by focusing on keeping in-state talent, well, IN STATE.
While this may seem like a no-brainer to fans and programs like Southern Cal or Florida, Minnesota typically has had the displeasure of watching homegrown players like Wayzata, Minnesota native James Laurinaitis, whom blindly loyal alum Kirk Herbstreit can't get enough of, star in other places such as Ohio State.
Imagine if Laurinaitis had donned the Maroon and Gold. Mark May, we hardly knew ye. Minnesota also wouldn't have suffered through the aforementioned one-win campaign last year.
Brewster was able to pinpoint the quick turnaround to the fact that in 2009, for the first time in over 25 years, Minnesota will open TCF Bank Stadium, a brand new state of the art facility in downtown Minneapolis, which he was able to effectively use as a recruiting tool.
Minnesota's class is already paying dividends with the addition of St. Paul (MN) native and running back Shady Solomon, for example, and California native DeLeon Eskridge.
Mix in Cold Spring, Minnesota junior Eric Decker, the nation's leading receiver, and it's not hard to fathom the team finishing on an extremely high note, injuries and sense of overachieving notwithstanding. If there was ever a year, this could be it.
Pretty impressive for a school that has only gone to 12 bowl games in its entire history.
Get on the bandwagon while there is still room.