When people talk about the Big 10‘s West Division, the topic of discussion is usually the two star running backs in Ameer Abdullah and Melvin Gordon at Nebraska and Wisconsin. Or they’ll talk about Pat Fitzgerald at Northwestern and how his Wildcats need to fill out this season. What you typically don’t hear much about is Minnesota, but the Golden Gophers probably prefer it that way.
We know Wisconsin is going to be good — maybe even really good. We know Nebraska is just a few fixed kinks away from being right up there too. But lurking in the shadows of the West Division is Minnesota, a team returning 10 starters on offense and its entire secondary on defense, which only allowed 215 passing yards per game a season ago.
One key piece Minnesota won’t be returning on offense is quarterback Philip Nelson, who stayed within the conference and transferred to Rutgers. (Minnesota hosts Rutgers in 2016, Nelson’s last year of eligibility.) That leaves redshirt sophomore Mitch Leidner as the starter.
Leidner played in 10 games last season and started four, bringing a virtually identical style of play to the table as Nelson. The sample size isn’t as large, but you can clearly see he’s a threat with both his arm and legs. The transition to Leidner as the full-time starter will not be a bumpy one, and that has a lot to do with running back David Cobb.
Cobb will be suiting up for his senior season with Minnesota, and he’ll be doing so after 1,202 yards a season ago, 1,137 more yards than he had in his first two seasons combined. I’m expecting the same sort of production this year. Cobb is working in an offense that pounds the ball first and foremost. It suits him well, and he has an entire offensive line back from a year ago. It’s going to be a very physical effort this season.
Minnesota wasn’t particularly great last year against the run, allowing north of 150 yards per contest and 4.5 yards per pop. Three of four starting defensive linemen return from last season, and there will need to improvement if they want to hang with the likes of Wisconsin and Nebraska, who feature (arguably) two of the best backs in the country.
What’s really going to stick out and shine with this Minnesota defense is the secondary. Teams struggled mightily to move the ball through the air last season, and that whole unit will be back at it again. The Gophers love forcing teams to become one-dimensional on offense, and they do it very well. This is where Minnesota really carries its advantage in the West Division.
And finally, coach Jerry Kill knows what works with his team, and he won’t try taking anyone out of their comfort zone. The job he has done coaching has gone overlooked (partly because of seizures, partly because of lack of results), but he has a talented team lined up to take the field this season.
Minnesota’s last two games of the season are both on the road against Nebraska and Wisconsin. I know it’s early, but those are two potentially huge games in the West Division because it’s not unfair at all to say the Gophers could be in the race at that point. This is a team to keep your eye on this season.