As Teddy described last week, Thursday's are going to be a bit of a wildcard around here during the B1G 2012 series. But there's certainly some similarities between the teams that we're reviewing in the first few weeks of this series, namely that they all aspire to become bowl teams.
Minnesota is no different, and so I'm stealing Ted's idea. If Ted doesn't like it, he can suck it!
At 3-9 in 2011 the Gophers weren't bowl eligible. Not only that, but the Gophers were nowhere near finding the other three wins they needed to become eligible. If the Gophers had been the mediocre team that everyone expected them to be, and the team that they sort of were during the second half of the season, they might have had a shot. Instead they crapped the bed early & often and barely recovered in the second half.
When Joel Maturi fired Glen Mason after the 2006 season, the Gopher program was... oh, what's a good word here... how about, serviceable? They certainly weren't competing for championships, but they were bowl eligible most years under Mason. But the idea was that the Gophers had hit their ceiling with Mason, and that bringing in another coach would allow them to get to "the next level."
Enter Tim Brewster.
/begins dry heaving
When Jerry Kill was hired after the 2010 season (and after everyone calmed down (/points at self) who was initially pissed about the hire), the sentiment quickly became "Hmmm, I like this guy. Maybe he can get us back to where we were in the Mason days." Yes, most of us were pining for the Mason days. For those of you who are fans of traditional "power" programs, go ahead and let that sink in for a moment.
With that in mind, let's take a look at Minnesota's schedule, broken down in three sections, and see if we can find 6 wins and get the Gophers bowl eligible for the first time since 2009.
The Gophers travel to the desert for a Thursday night opener at UNLV, before coming home for a three-game stand against New Hampshire, Western Michigan & Syracuse.
UNLV & Minnesota both played Wisconsin in 2012, and both lost; UNLV by 34 in week 1, Minnesota by 29 in mid-November. UNLV did not have as strong of a schedule as Minnesota did in 2011, and the Rebels finished with a 2-10 record. New Hampshire is an FCS school, and while we know Minnesota lost to an FCS school in 2011, New Hampshire didn't become the eventual FCS Champion like North Dakota State did. Western Michigan is a team from the MAC, and MAC teams have traditionally been pretty competitive against the Gophers, but Jerry Kill knows them well. Syracuse is a team that had a promising start in 2011 at 5-2 through their first 7 games, but then dropped their final 5 games.
It's not out of the realm of possibility that the Gophers could go undefeated through their non-conference schedule. This is not the murderer's row of opponents. Having said that, let's assume they drop one of these games (if I was a betting man, which I'm not as far as you know, I'd bet on it being Western Michigan).
B1G Conference 1st Half
The conference schedule starts off on the road at arguably Minnesota's biggest rival, Iowa, followed by hosting Northwestern on Homecoming, traveling to Wisconsin, and then back the The Bank to face Purdue.
Iowa is tough at home, and they are bound to be chompin' at the bit to get at the Gophers after losing to the Gophers (again) in 2011. Northwestern went bowling last season, but by many accounts underachieved finishing just 6-6 before losing to A&M in the Meineke blah blah blah Bowl. Wisconsin was a damn fine team in 2011 and appeared in the Rose Bowl. Purdue also made it to a bowl game in 2011, albeit a bowl game in Detroit against a MAC team.
This is a strange stretch for the Gophers going road/home/road/home, facing their two biggest rivals both on the road and facing two teams at home that should be beatable. Something about this stretch makes me nervous, but if the Gophers are going to make a bowl game they are going to HAVE to pull two wins out of these games. I would love to think that the Gophers can beat Iowa at Kinnick, but traveling there will be difficult. I don't think the Gophers are quite to the point where they can roll into Madison and take out the Badgers, but I'd be happy to be proven wrong. Northwestern has been playing tough at Minnesota for a long time, but they are without question beatable on Homecoming, and I believe that the Gophers can avenge the embarrassment they suffered at Purdue last season.
B1G Conference 2nd Half
The final third of the season begins with the Gophers hosting the Wolverines, then traveling to Illinois and Nebraska before finishing the season at home against MSU.
Brady Hoke did an unreal job with Michigan last year and managed to absolutely take the Gophers behind the woodshed with a 58-0 win in The Big House. The Gophers got one of their 3 wins against Illinois last year and showed Ron Zook the door in the process. There will be growing pains under Beckman for the Illini, but he's walking into a similar situation that Jerry Kill did when he joined the Gophers, so could he have his team humming by the time they host the Gophers? The Gophers have a history of losing BIG at Nebraska, but they haven't played there in 22 years. MSU had a great 2011 although they got drubbed by the BCS and are sure to be hungry in 2012. The Gophers played the Spartans tough in 2011 at MSU.
This is another interesting stretch that is book-ended with the Gophers hosting both teams from Michigan, and traveling to Illinois and Nebraska in between. If the previous two-thirds of the schedule hold up as described the Gophers will need to win one of their final 4 games to become bowl eligible. The obvious choice in this group of games would be for the Gophers to win at Illinois.
So that brings us to a 6-6 finish. Strong start, .500 mid-season, and a rough ending en route to an extra month of practice and a bowl game. At this point I could see some variation in either of the first two thirds of the schedule (4-0 start? 1-3 or 3-1 mid-section?), but I think the final 4 games will hold true.
If the Gophers manage to make a bowl game in Jerry Kill's second season the Gopher fan base will be VERY happy. It might be a year too early for the Gophers to get back to bowl eligibility, but the schedule sets up pretty nicely for the Gophers to make a run at it if they can start 2012 the way the finished 2011, and can improve at the kind of clip that they did in 2011 as well.