After several years of mediocrity from their football program, the Minnesota Golden Gophers are finally on the road to being relevant in the Big 10. Jerry Kill has slowly built a strong roster with a plethora of young talent, but is still facing the tall task of competing with the conference’s elite teams.
Can Minnesota take the leap in 2014 or will they continue to be one of the Big 10’s middle-of-the-road teams this upcoming season?
With that in mind, here’s a look at the offensive, defensive and schedule outlooks for Minnesota heading into the season
The offense will live and die at the hands of Mitch Leidner this season. The sophomore quarterback showed promise last season, splitting time with Philip Nelson, who transferred to Rutgers this offseason. Leidner has a strong arm and plus athleticism, and should have no trouble hurting defenses through the air and on the ground this season.
While Leidner doesn’t have too many veteran receivers to throw to, he’ll have a couple of sophomores who are coming off strong freshman seasons. Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones will be counted on to grow during their second year on the field for Minnesota, while senior Isaac Fruechte is also expected to contribute. Also keep an eye on tight end Maxx Williams to make an impact in the passing game.
When the passing game lets the Gophers down, they can always fall back on the run. Led by David Cobb, the Minnesota ground attack offers four runners capable of carrying significant loads. Look for Cobb to emerge as a potential NFL talent this year while speedy redshirt freshman Berkley Edwards gets a few opportunities to shine.
The offensive line returns three starters, including outstanding guard Zac Epping.
The Minnesota defense is faced with the task of replacing Ra’Shede Hageman, one of the top defensive lineman of the 2014 draft class. However, his departure could open a door for Cameron Botticelli to emerge as a playmaker. The Gophers will also look to defensive end Theiren Cockran to disrupt opposing offenses after notching 7.5 sacks last season.
The linebacking unit is led by senior Damien Wilson, who could emerge as a late-round NFL prospect in 2014. The outside linebackers are Jack Lynn and De’Vondre Campbell, who could come together to help the Gophers field one of the fastest group of linebackers in the Big 10.
Replacing Brock Vereen is certainly going to be tough, but Minnesota should see Cedric Thompson emerge as the secondary’s new playmaker. Eric Murray and Derrick Wells will team together to create a solid cornerback duo, while Antonio Johnson should fill the other safety job. This is a talented unit, but chemistry and inexperience will certainly be a concern in 2014, especially after Minnesota’s susceptibility through the air last season.
The Gophers start the 2014 campaign off easy, with four straight winnable games, including an away game against TCU. At worst, they should end that run with a 3-1 record, but then finish the season with eight conference showdowns in a row.
The fun starts with a road game against Michigan, followed by two home battles with Northwestern and Purdue – both winnable games. The Gophers then hit the road again to face Illinois before another two-game home stretch that consists of Iowa and Ohio State. Minnesota then finishes the year on the road, with two away appearances against Nebraska and Wisconsin.
They’re lucky to avoid Michigan State and get Ohio State at home, but won’t have it easy facing Nebraska, Wisconsin and Michigan in unfriendly confines. However, it’s not completely out of the question for this Minnesota team to finish 9-3 during the regular season if the offense can come together during the first four games.
Minnesota has a lot of momentum coming off an impressive 2013 campaign that saw them finish 8-5. If they can pull off an upset or two in conference play, they might even be able to improve on that record this year. A conference title is highly unlikely, but don’t be surprised to see the Golden Gophers get even better in 2014.