Though the most recent preview I wrote was for Nebraska, Minnesota football writer GoAUpher at The Daily Gopher was kind enough to answer some recent questions I had for our matchup in Minneapolis. He was also kind enough to sell me his seats when I visited TCF Bank two years ago. here is what he had to say:
T-Mill: What Minnesota team do we see this year? The one that came close to winning the division or the one that was blown out by Michigan?
GoAUpher: I honestly think we'll see a team that is much closer to the team that won 4 B1G games in a row last year. Coach Kill definitely has things on an upswing, but as your question notes the team has still struggled with being blown out in some games. For me personally, that's an important metric of improvement and one that I still need to see more improvement in. Assuming the team is able to control the clock and the defense is quietly successful like last season I think that's a reasonable accomplishment.
T-Mill: Am I wrong in saying that this is starting to looking like an old Glen Mason team with its running game?
GoAUpher: The Gophers are definitely run heavy, but I wouldn't say this is a Glen Mason level rushing offense yet though. It's easy to forget, but those Glen Mason offenses were pretty crazy. Two 1,000 yard rushers a season, 500+ rushing yard games, first down after first down. The current Gophers share that run first focus. What they lack is the crazy level of production that the iconic Mason teams put out.
I think that's ok though. What this team really needs is for the passing game to improve. With how run heavy the Gophers are, a quarterback who can perform at an above average level (i.e. competent game manager who avoids mistakes) should have room to work against most defenses. That's the element that was painfully absent last season and teams could stack up to 9 guys in the box and get away with it. It was maddening.
T-Mill: The defense was deceptively good last year. Will the replacements be able to keep up that performance?
GoAUpher: The temptation is to say "yes they can" with faith in the fact that another year under the same coaching staff will continue to produce improvements. I think the more accurate answer is "yes and maybe." What do I mean by that? Well, "yes" refers to the Gophers secondary. Despite what Tom Dienhart's non-sensical preseason rankings might say, Minnesota returns an experienced secondary with enough talent that has Gopher fans pretty excited.
The front 7 is the "maybe" for the Gophers. That's because there are some pretty big unanswered questions right now, especially up front along the line. The linebackers are in better shape, but the new starters are still, well, new starters. It's not that there isn't enough talent there, it's just that assuming the new guys will be better because FAITH is...well...not really an objective position.
My expectation is that the Gophers will continue to struggle against the run up front, will get gashed a fair amount at the middle level throughout the season, and will lock things down in the secondary against both the run and the pass. The Gopher coaches are expressing more than a little optimism about the defense though (and remember, this isn't a TIM BREWSTER RAH RAH RAH coaching staff) so maybe I should have a little more faith.
T-Mill: What do you feel the ceiling is for this Minnesota team? Outside shot at winning the West?
GoAUpher: I think the highly optimistic ceiling is 9 regular season wins and remaining in contention for the West until late in the season. That's not going to happen, but wishful thinking is still fun. The more realistic ceiling is 8 regular season wins with no real legit shot at the West. My honest expectation is 7-5 though.
T-Mill: How has the quarterback situation been settled and will there be more of a passing game
GoAUpher: It's settled in the sense that Mitch Leidner is the unquestioned starter (it seems fair to say that about a sophomore QB who is representing his team at B1G Media Days). It's unsettled in the sense that we still don't know if he's ready to take a big enough step forward as a passer. Moose is a beast running the ball. He is and will continue to be a formidable weapon on the ground. But his passing last season was erratic and he had a tendency to hold the ball far too long when under pressure instead of throwing it away. I'm choosing to be optimistic though. I think Mitch will take that step forward and his passing performances will improve. It may not be enough to make a big difference in the W/L, but optimistic me thinks it will negate blowouts and will help the Gophers pull at least one upset this fall.