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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 92: Minnesota

Good coaches can be found anywhere, from high school through the N.F.L., in the F.C.S., the F.B.S. and anywhere in between. Case in point: Jerry Kill, late of Northern Illinois, now of Minnesota. Just where did this guy come from? Kill’s in Minneapolis via DeKalb, via Southern Illinois, via Emporia State via Saginaw Valley State — the one in Michigan. No, he’s never been a coordinator for a national champion. He’s not a Nick Saban disciple. He hasn’t even — my goodness, can this be true? — coached a day in the N.F.L., for goodness’ sake. Kill’s just a football coach, no flash, few frills. Just like his teams. I think he’ll be popular.

Conference
Big Ten, Legends

Location
Minneapolis, Minn.

Nickname
Golden Gophers

Returning starters
14 (6 offense, 8 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 83

2010 record
(3-9, 1-7)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 99

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 3
    at U.S.C.
  • Sept. 10
    New Mexico St.
  • Sept. 17
    Miami (Ohio)
  • Sept. 24
    North Dakota St.
  • Oct. 1
    at Michigan
  • Oct. 8
    at Purdue
  • Oct. 22
    at Nebraska
  • Oct. 29
    Iowa
  • Nov. 5
    at Michigan St.
  • Nov. 12
    Wisconsin
  • Nov. 19
    at Northwestern
  • Nov. 26
    Illinois

Last year’s prediction

I’m very skeptical about Minnesota’s chances in the Big Ten in 2010. The Gophers are not strong at any one position: on offense, question marks abound on the offensive line, at receiver and in the backfield; the defense must replace nine lost starters, with a very difficult transition looming at linebacker. The schedule is also a concern. As noted, the more winnable Big Ten affairs come on the road; the home slate, which includes non-conference dates with Northern Illinois and U.S.C., is extremely difficult. There is a lot to overcome, and I don’t think the Gophers have a coaching staff capable of coercing this group to more than a five-win finish. Minnesota is not bad, not great, not terrible. Little more, little less. Is this what the university envisioned out of Tim Brewster?

2010 recap

In a nutshell We won’t have Tim Brewster to pick on anymore. Which is nice for Minnesota, not so nice for those who enjoyed his puzzling approach to leading a major college football program. The end officially came on Oct. 17, when the Gophers were 1-6, losers of six straight. The end unofficially came long ago, when only the most optimistic of us were able to say with a straight face that all Brewster needed was time to turn things around. Well, he had time: three full years and seven games, and that was more than enough. It’s probably not that surprising that Minnesota played better football once he was relieved of his duties, winning two straight to end the year under offensive coordinator and interim coach Jeff Horton. Minnesota’s coaching search started big before aiming in on Northern Illinois’ Jerry Kill, who is far from flashy but has gotten results at each of his previous stops.

High point Wins over Illinois and Iowa to end the year. Where was this Minnesota team all year? The Gophers won at Illinois, scoring a touchdown with 16 seconds left to escape with a 38-34 victory. Two weeks later, Minnesota took home the Floyd of Rosedale for the first time since 2006, beating Iowa at home by a field goal.

Low point In 2007, Brewster’s first season, the Gophers lost to North Dakota State. Last fall, his last, the Gophers lost to South Dakota. Most Americans are ambivalent towards those two states. Not Minnesota: Minnesota must hate the Dakotas.

Tidbit Minnesota has its non-conference schedule set through 2014, after which point the Big Ten might adopt a nine-game conference slate. Believe me, if Jim Delany wants a nine-game schedule, we’re going to see a nine-game schedule. Anyway, the September schedule in each of the next four years follows a familiar tune: one B.C.S. conference opponent, at least one non-B.C.S. patsy and an F.C.S. foe. In 2011, as you can see above, it will be B.C.S. conference foe U.S.C.; patsies New Mexico State and Miami (Ohio) — the latter not so much, but you get the idea; and F.C.S. foe North Dakota State. In 2012: Syracuse; U.N.L.V. and Western Michigan; and New Hampshire. In 2013: North Carolina; U.N.L.V. and San Jose State; and Western Illinois. In 2014: North Carolina; Miami (Ohio) and San Jose State; and Eastern Illinois.

Tidbit (100-word preview edition) It’s that time again. Here’s how it works: I give you a quiz question; you become the first person to answer the question; you win the opportunity to pen a 100-word preview of your favorite team when it appears on the Countdown. Get it? Good. Here’s the question:

The F.C.S. powerhouses known as North Dakota State and South Dakota have won two straight over Minnesota, though the program are a combined 3-14 all-time against the Gophers. Can you name the other current F.B.S. programs these two teams have defeated?

Teams already spoken for: Texas (Burnt Orange), Pittsburgh (htp2012).

Former players in the N.F.L.

15 RB Marion Barber (Dallas), S Dominique Barber (Houston), S Tyrone Carter (San Diego), WR Eric Decker (Denver), LB Simoni Lawrence (Tampa Bay), K Rhys Lloyd (Carolina), RB Laurence Maroney (Denver), DT Barrett Moen (Seattle), WR Logan Payne (New York Jets), C Mark Setterstrom (St. Louis), CB Marcus Sherels (Minnesota), CB Traye Simmons (San Diego), TE Matt Spaeth (Pittsburgh), LB Nate Triplett (Indianapolis), DE Stylez White (Tampa Bay).

Arbitrary top five list

Craig T. Nelson TV shows
1. “Coach,” 1989-97.
2. “The District,” 2000-4.
3. “Call to Glory,” 1984-85.
4. ”Parenthood,” 2010-11.
5. “Chicago Story,” 1982.

Coaching

Jerry Kill (Southwestern College ’83), entering his first season at Minnesota. Kill did a wonderful job replacing Joe Novak at Northern Illinois, which had slipped to 2-10 in the last of 12 seasons he spent as the face of the N.I.U. program. Kill led the Huskies to a four-win improvement in his first season, a year that saw N.I.U. make significant strides on defense. Similar improvement came on offense, where the Huskies went from scoring 19.1 points per game in 2007 to 26.2 a year later. More of the same in 2009: largely under the radar, N.I.U. surpassed expectations in landing another bowl berth, giving the program two in as many years under Kill. Then came last fall, when Kill and the Huskies blew up – to ten wins, a program record for points in a season, a strong defense and, most of all, the type of mentality that will play well in the Big Ten. Kill was hired by Northern Illinois after seven seasons at Southern Illinois (2001-7), where he compiled a 55-32 career record. The Salukis, who reached the F.C.S. playoffs in each of his final five seasons, won three consecutive Gateway Conference championships (2003-5) and spent a total of 64 consecutive weeks ranked in the F.C.S. top 20 between 2003-7. Pretty heady stuff, especially when considering S.I.U. went 32-66 in the nine years prior to Kill’s arrival. Success wasn’t immediate for Kill either, as the team went 5-18 over his first two seasons (including a 1-10 finish in 2001). Kill was awarded for his success with the Salukis with the Eddie Robinson National Coach of the Year award in 2004 and the Liberty Mutual National Coach of the Year award in 2007. Prior to Southern Illinois, Kill served as the head coach at Emporia State (11-11 from 1999-2000) and Saginaw Valley State (38-14 from 1994-98). What does this mean? That Kill’s familiar with building from the ground up. That’ll come in handy.

Players to watch

So we know that MarQueis Gray can play wide receiver; he was the team’s second-leading receiver last fall, making 42 receptions for 587 yards and 5 scores. We don’t yet know if he can play quarterback, however, though we’re due to find out pretty soon after Sept. 3. He’s attempted only 23 passes over the last two years, eight a year ago as Adam Weber’s backup, but the job is his in 2011 — he needs to parlay his massive physical gifts into not just explosive play but consistent play, and the latter is more important to Kill than the former. But I do get intrigued by the idea of such a physically gifted quarterback running this offense, which will get him into easy, makeable passing situations while putting him in situations where he can make plays with his feet. Gray’s still an unproven quantity, which is troublesome, but there’s no doubt he can be successful in an offense that will allow him to make plays. Gray is a better athlete than Chandler Harnisch, with all due to respect to the talented — and winning — Northern Illinois quarterback.

It will be a three-headed machine in the backfield, with Gray joining forces with running backs DeLeon Eskridge and Duane Bennett. The latter pair, both seniors, should continue to split carries: Eskridge had 193 last fall, Bennett 123, combining for 1,227 yards and 10 touchdowns. Those totals should remain roughly the same, give or take, despite the fact that Gray is due to see his touches increase greatly.

Spring injuries to projected starters Da’Jon McKnight, Brandon Green and Eric Lair gave the second team some snaps at receiver and tight end, which may end up proving very useful to Minnesota. This trio will be back in the starting lineup come September. McKnight led the Gophers in receptions (48), yards (750) and scores (10) last fall, and should prove to be Gray’s best friend in the passing game. Green started five games in 2009 but missed most of last season due to injury; he landed a medical redshirt, saving the year of eligibility. Lair is one of the Big Ten’s most productive tight ends: he made 39 grabs for 525 yards last fall, finishing third on the team with 13.5 yards per catch. A pair of spring additions, Ge’Shun Harris and Marcus Jones, have already made their names known on the depth chart; as of today, it seems like Jones will start in the slot.

To say that last year’s defense was cringe-worthy is not a strong enough statement; it was heave-inducing, reach-for-the-antacids-inducing, hey-where-are-my-antidepressants-inducing — something along those lines. Most of the defense returns, but an enormous amount of work remains to be done before we can start saying the words Minnesota and strong defense in the same sentence. And as always is the case, the work starts up front. At least the Gophers made a change at defensive coordinator: Tracy Claeys, a longtime Kill assistant, replaces Kevin Cosgrove, and brings with him an attacking, confident, hit-first-ask-questions-later (I’m using the hyphens too much) kind of defense.

What about the defensive line? Losing massive tackle Jewhan Edwards really hurts, as he was a guy who seemed one play away from turning into one of the Big Ten’s best. But the Gophers hope that Brandon Kirksey can have that same light turn on after a somewhat disappointing 2010 campaign; in 2009, Kirksey’s future seemed very bright. He’ll be joined in the middle by Anthony Jacobs, with depth coming from a handful of younger guys.

The ends need to start getting pressure in the backfield, if only to show on the end-game stat sheet that yes, Minnesota does plays defensive ends. They were largely missing in action last fall, with D.L. Wilhite and Kendall Gregory-McGhee, the projected starters, combining for all of 3.5 tackles for loss and a pair of sacks. Minnesota needs more, clearly.

No group on the team has better numbers than linebacker, leaving Kill and Claeys with an enviable issue to address: Which three guys will we start? I’d have to guess that one will be former Florida transfer Brendan Beal, who is eligible for action after sitting out last season. If Beal does start in the middle — that’s the only place he would start, I’d think — you’d think that the Gophers would push Gary Tinsley (team-best 90 tackles, 9 for loss) to the strong side. That leaves perhaps four players with some starting experience battling it out for the third linebacker spot: names like Keanon Cooper and Mike Rallis seem like the clearest options. You have to like what Minnesota has at linebacker, especially if Beal is all he’s cracked up to be and Tinsley can transition to an outside spot.

Cornerback Troy Stoudermire is pretty good, especially when you consider he’s been in the secondary for only a year. A former receiver, he was moved to defense after the 2010 season began and acquitted himself quite well, all things considered. If he can continue to develop, perhaps Stoudermire is an all-Big Ten caliber cornerback. You can say the same of Michael Carter if he puts his game together; like Kirksey, he was a disappointment after a strong 2009 season. Minnesota is doing flips over the fact that safety Kim Royston landed a sixth year of eligibility, even if it wasn’t all that surprising, seeing that he missed all of last season — still, you never know what the N.C.A.A. is going to rule. Royston’s dependability was sorely missed last fall. James Manuel made three starts last and is a logical pick to slide in alongside Royston.

The line is a concern, especially at end, but no unit on the defense gives me as much reason for pause as the secondary. Yeah, bringing Royston back helps, but this group really needs to step up. Of course, a solid pass rush cures all.

Position battle(s) to watch

Offensive line Three starters must be replaced, and the Gophers bring back only four linemen with game experience. Two earned solid starting experience last fall: sophomore Ed Olson made eight starts at left tackle, and Chris Bunders has started the last 25 games at left guard. Ryan Orton, a senior, made three starts at tackle; another senior, Ryan Wynn, started a game at center. So there’s some experience to work with, which will help. Wynn will step up into the starting role at center, replacing D.J. Burris, while Orton might move inside to guard as a replacement for Matt Carufel. So that settles the interior of the line, one would think, though Brooks Michel, Zac Epping and spring addition Josh Campion could push for time. Olson has all-conference potential, and the battle at right tackle includes Jimmy Gjere and Sean Ferguson. Knowing that he needs to add numbers, Kill signed six linemen in his first recruiting cycle. The big question: Is the Minnesota line ready to adopt a more physical approach in the running game? If the line isn’t ready, the offense will find tough sledding in the Big Ten.

Game(s) to watch

Going 3-1 in non-conference play is imperative, so keep an eye on how Minnesota fares after returning home from what should be a loss at U.S.C. Then there’s the Big Ten slate, which should find the Gophers underdogs nearly throughout but does provide chances to make waves.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell You want to know what Minnesota is going to look like under Jerry Kill? It’s simply, really: just pop in a tape of Northern Illinois over the last three years. And if you have game tape of Kill’s teams at Southern Illinois, Emporia State or Saginaw Valley State, those will work as well. It’s a simple philosophy, one that hasn’t changed all that much since Kill was calling plays for Pittsburg State back in 1991: run the ball, don’t turn it over in the passing game, get to the quarterback and stop the run. So simple it would work anywhere, and will work at Minnesota — I do believe that the Gophers will be perennial bowl participants in the near future under Kill. That’s something I’m very confident in. You know what I’m not confident in? This year’s specific team: I don’t think it’s going to go swimmingly in Kill’s first season. Let’s start by touching on the most intangible reason why: Kill has to change a pillow-soft mentality, thanks to his predecessor, and I don’t think that’s an alteration that’s going to occur overnight, or in the span of one set of spring practices, summer workouts and fall play. It may take more than that, but Kill’s resume does signal that the change can occur relatively quickly. Now, the more specific reasons: I love Gray’s athleticism but can’t shake the feeling he’s better suited for receiver, not quarterback; I wonder whether the offensive line can embrace being physical; and question marks dot the defense. So I like the hire but don’t really like this team, though the schedule should yield another win in the standings. The good news, however: Minnesota will begin to play tough, physical football after a slight, four-year detour towards finesse. That was a big mistake.

Dream season Hey, no surprises here: Minnesota embraces the new mentality, running the ball effectively and stiffening up defensively to finish 8-4, 5-3 in the Big Ten.

Nightmare season It takes Kill at least one season to get this team’s act in gear. His debut campaign finds the Golden Gophers taking a step back: 3-9, 0-8.

In case you were wondering

Where do Minnesota fans congregate? Start with Gopher Hole, the hardest-working Minnesota fan site on the Web, as well as the best place to find Gopher-related sports chatter. You can find coverage of Minnesota recruiting at Golden Sports and Gopher Illustrated. It’s hard to make your mark in the blog-heavy Big Ten, but The Daily Gopher is one of the top blogs in the conference.

Word Count

Through 29 teams 76,604.

Up Next

Who is No. 91? There are 15 directional schools in the F.B.S.; tomorrow’s program is tied for the fourth-youngest, and unlike its doppelganger, has only one winning season since 2007.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. M Meyer says:

    100 word tidbit. Here’s what I have:

    North Dakota State has beaten Arkansas State, Ball State, Central Michigan, Kansas, Minnesota, and Northern Illinois

    South Dakota has beaten Minnesota, Nebraska, and Troy

    If that’s right, I’d like Iowa.

    Paul: You got it. Fortunately, there isn’t a “no Ken O’Keefe” policy on the site.

  2. The Madphatter says:

    Western Michigan must be next

  3. HW86 says:

    South Dakota State had a very good chance at beating Minnesota as well, but four turnovers and a missed chip shot field goal cost them the game.

  4. bowman says:

    hey paul — the schedule you’ve included is a bit awry; according to the Gopher Website, they’re playing a lot more than just two conference games this season…..

    Paul: Thanks. I started filling it in, forgot and then never went back to it. I don’t know who the default schedule list is for.

  5. Steve says:

    I’m assuming there was a mix-up on Minnesota’s schedule (though it might not matter a whole lot).

  6. Burnt Orange says:

    I like Kill but the timing is terrible for a big turn-around at Minnesota. The Big 10 is on an upswing. Plus, realistically which teams can Minnesota quickly surpass to become bowl eligible year in and year out? Indiana,Purdue, and maybe Illinois- they are all in the other division. Plus in the automatic annual cross over game, Minnesota draws Wisconsin while division foes like NW, Iowa, and MSU get Illinois, Purdue, and Indiana. The Gophers got the short stick in the realignment.

    By comparison, look at Pinkel at Missouri ten years ago, he comes in and Colorado and Nebraska are declining. KU is awful. Then Snyder retires and Iowa State lets McCartney go. It was a perfect set up for a turn around and to his credit, Pinkel was good enough to get it done though the issue was in doubt in years 3-4. Wonder how it would have turned out if he had an annual cross over game with OU while Kansas was playing Baylor every year?

  7. Burnt Orange says:

    McCarney. Senior moment.

  8. Sasser says:

    Burnt Orange – Another big reason why getting the 3-1 nonconference record is imperative. In the realist’s world, there’s no way they can manage more than three wins in the conference schedule this year.

    I predict a 5-7 season (2-6 Big Ten), taking wins against Purdue and Illinois.

  9. Steve says:

    I’m jacked to see Grey at QB in Limegrover’s offense. Not a Gophers fan (WVU) but loved watching that system they ran at NIU the past few years.

  10. [...] Read continues his countdown of all 120 FBS teams before the season begins and the beloved rodents populate spot number 92 on his list. His outlook for Kill long-term? Glowingly positive. The upcoming season? Ehh….: [...]

  11. [...] Presnap Read’s glorious review of Jerry Kill here [...]

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