Around the Big Ten: Is this finally the year for Minnesota?
Minnesota might be the best team on paper in the Big Ten Conference's West Division. But, that schedule ...
The Golden Gophers are at a high point under fifth-year coach Jerry Kill after back-to-back 8-5 seasons. Last year should be considered Kill's best team yet, considering they throttled Iowa, 51-14, and played national champion Ohio State within a touchdown. And there's a chance things could be better in 2015.
But, that schedule ...
Minnesota opens against TCU — which figures to be ranked No. 2 or 3 in the nation and enter TCF Bank Stadium with a chip on its shoulder after its College Football Playoff snub. The next week, it travels to Colorado State, which is coming off its best season since 2002 (10-3). And in Big Ten play, the Gophers rolled snake eyes in the scheduling-luck department: They not only open league play with two road tests (Northwestern, Purdue), they drew Michigan (home) and Ohio State (road) as Big Ten East crossover opponents.
So, even though Kill has maybe the league's best secondary, a potent running game and an experienced quarterback, the Gophers have very little margin for error to win their first Big Ten football title (division or overall) since 1967.
Kill installed a no-huddle offense during spring drills, with the goal of getting the ball out of junior quarterback Mitch Leidner's hands more quickly. If Leidner can provide a lift to the nation's No. 119 passing attack in 2014, the Gophers might be hard to stop behind their high-powered ground game.
"We won't change our overall identity no matter what we do," Kill said in an interview with the Big Ten Network following spring drills. "Two things (the no-huddle) does: (No. 1), from a defensive standpoint, we are playing against it all the time. No. 2, there will be situations when you have to play catch-up. If you can have a change-of-pace, it's a good thing."
Minnesota is high, as it should be, on its all-senior secondary, which includes all-Big Ten cornerbacks Briean Boddy-Calhoun (five interceptions) and Eric Murray.
Still to be settled
Can David Cobb be replaced? Now a Tennessee Titan, Cobb exploded for 1,626 rushing yards in 2014.
The front-runner is 5-foot-11, 229-pound Rodrick Williams, but redshirt freshman Rodney Smith turned heads in the spring with his vision and patience that resembled Cobb's, according to GopherDigest.com. This could become a by-committee position, but no matter whose belly gets delivered footballs from Leidner, Minnesota's commitment to the run (215.5 yards a game last year) is unchanged.
Minnesota might be more loaded than every team it plays not named Ohio State or TCU. But with an almost-certain loss to the Buckeyes, the Gophers can at most only afford one more Big Ten loss to win the West. That means it'll need to take care of at least three of these four toughies — at Northwestern, Nebraska, Michigan and at Iowa (in a night game seven days after the game in Columbus, Ohio) to possibly have a West title-winning shot Nov. 28 against division favorite Wisconsin.
It's a tall order, and it'll require almost everything to fall perfectly. Come Nov. 14, there's no doubt the Hawkeyes would love to reclaim Floyd of Rosedale and spoil Minnesota's title hopes.