Tom Dienhart, BTN.com Senior Writer, August 3, 2015
Who is gonna win the Big Ten West? It?s a question that popped up in conversations among media members in the hallways of McCormick Place, home of the recent Big Ten media days.
No doubt, you could make a case for either of those schools to win what looks like a wide-open division. Unlike the East, where Ohio State is the overwhelming favorite, the West has some real cliff-hanger intrigue.
How about Minnesota? Sure, let?s go with the Golden Gophers to win the pennant in the West and play in the Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis in December.
?If there was going to be a year when Minnesota could rise up, this is it,? said FOX college commentator Joel Klatt said. ?Wisconsin and Nebraska are in a bit of a transition with new coaches-Nebraska more than Wisconsin. So, the time could be right for Minnesota.?
This is a program loaded with mojo entering its fifth season under Jerry Kill. The Gophers are coming off consecutive 8-5 seasons. And last year, the school played in its first New Year?s Day bowl since the 1961 season. Minnesota is the shiny new car on the lot, a shiny object that looks exciting. Alas, the Gophers were picked to finish third in the West at Big Ten media days.
?I've never really worried about where you're picked or anything like that,? said Kill. ?I always worry about the end of the year and where you're at. But I think it's — you know, we keep improving and keep getting better. And last year I said we'd have a better team we had a year ago. And we firmly believe that we'll be more athletic and a better football team this year.
?But there's a lot of other people that are here today that can say the same things. But we feel good about our football team and the talent. I think we'll have more speed. And we're excited about seeing them play.?
The speed and talent Kill speaks of includes the likes of defensive end Thieren Cockran, a veteran offensive line led by Josh Campion and the best secondary in the Big Ten that is anchored by corners Briean Boddy-Calhoun and Eric Murray.
Why the doubters? This is a program that hasn?t reached elite status in generations. The last Rose Bowl? Minnesota went after the 1960 and 1961 seasons-and it hasn?t sniffed Pasadena since.
There is a rich heritage at the school, as illustrious as any in the Big Ten. The problem: You have to blow a lot of dust off of it. The Gophers claim seven national titles: 1904; 1934; 1935; 1936; 1940; 1941; 1960. Since Murray Warmath minted that title in 1960, Minnesota has had nine coaches. And only Glen Mason (1997-2006) left with a winning record. Kill could be the best of them all since Warmath.
?When I think of Minnesota, I think of tough, hard-nosed football,? said Wisconsin quarterback Joel Stave. ?They like to run the ball. They are a lot like us.?
Credit Kill, who earned his stripes in the coaching ranks working his way up the backwaters of the sport with all of the style and panache of a bologna sandwich. Kill didn?t get jobs because he had a famous last name or was the son of a legend. He cut his teeth at places like Pittsburg State, Saginaw Valley State, Emporia State, Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois. Kill won at each stop-and it hasn?t ceased in the Twin Cities, where he appears to have this program on the precipice of bigger things beyond another run to a mid-level bowl.
?I think up front we bring back some experience,? said Kill. ?I think that we'll be good up front and that's where it all starts. (Quarterback) Mitch (Leidner) has had an outstanding offseason. He's a year older. He went to Peyton Manning's camp, which he was invited to, which I think was good for him.
?Adam Weber, hired as a graduate assistant who played quarterback for the Gophers, has been in the NFL for a short time, certainly has helped. So I look for him to have a great year. And, certainly, it starts there.
?And then we've surrounded ourselves with some good skill players, some very good receivers that we redshirted to have more explosive plays. So I think we knew our shortcomings, and we tried to address those.?
Passing has been a shortcoming, as the aerial game needs more oomph after ranking No. 13 in the Big Ten last year (141.8 ppg). And while there appears to be many quality options at running back, David Cobb was a special player who must be replaced.
A major strength for the team is a veteran staff that has largely stuck together over the years. Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys has been with Kill since 1995; Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover has been at his side since 1999; defensive backs coach Jay Sawvel, receivers coach Brian Anderson and running backs coach Pat Poore since 2001.
?That staff consistency helps,? said Kill.
The schedule could prove to be a challenge for Minnesota. The opener vs. TCU will be a great litmus test vs. a team that may compete for the national title. And there is a trip to Ohio State in November. Still, the Gophers get top West Division foes Nebraska and Wisconsin at home.
?Last year we were one game away from playing. And, really, Wisconsin has been the one that's kept us out of there,? said Kill. ?And I feel like we had a lot of success last year. We got three trophies. But we don't have — we haven't had the axe in a long time. I think that's been the issue.
?We're where we need to be. How do you get over the hump? Got to recruit better players. Players — everybody gets fired up about the coaches and talks to the coaches. But coaches don't win games. Players do. And I think our recruiting has gotten better, and that's how we're going to have to get over the hump.
?Our new facility is certainly going to help us and the commitment to that. So we're excited about the progress where we're at. And certainly when I got the job when we started, there's a lot of difference than what it was four years ago.?
And now, Minnesota may be going places-all the way to the top of the West Division.
|About Tom Dienhart||BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men's basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.|