The Gophers, coming off back-to-back bowl seasons, open another hopeful season on Thursday night against Eastern Illinois at TCF Bank Stadium. Here is a quick primer on the team as that first kickoff approaches:
Coach: Jerry Kill, 144-94 in 20 years; fourth season with the Gophers (17-21).
Returning starters: Eight on offense, seven on defense.
Schedule analysis: The Gophers have what should be a tougher schedule than in recent seasons. Their opening opponent, Eastern Illinois, has upset potential after going to the FCS quarterfinals last season. Their third game is a rare nonconference test: a trip down to Fort Worth, Texas, to face TCU. And those final four games? Yikes. Iowa, Ohio State, at Nebraska, at Wisconsin. Could the Gophers have a better team but worse record? Absolutely.
Last year: 8-5 (4-4 Big Ten), lost to Syracuse 21-17 in the Texas Bowl.
Key departures: QB Philip Nelson, DT Ra’Shede Hageman, DB Brock Vereen, LB Aaron Hill, K Chris Hawthorne.
Key returnees: QB Mitch Leidner, RB David Cobb, TE Maxx Williams, DE Theiren Cockran, LB Damien Wilson.
Key newcomers: RB Berkley Edwards, DT Steven Richardson, DE Andrew Stelter, K Ryan Santoso, CB Craig James.
Greater than eight?
Jerry Kill has improved the Gophers by at least two victories in each season since his first at Minnesota: from 3-9 to 6-7 to 8-5. Can he get the Gophers to nine or more this season? Here are three things that must happen if they hope to improve once again:
1 Mitch Leidner is the biggest key. The redshirt sophomore shared time with Philip Nelson last year, playing in 10 games and starting four. He completed 55.1 percent of his passes, compared to 50.5 for Nelson, and those numbers must improve.
Leidner threw just one interception last year in 78 attempts, but he took seven sacks in the final two games. The 6-4, 237-pound Lakeville native is a strong threat to run, evidenced by his 24-carry, 155-yard, four-touchdown performance against San Jose State
But the Gophers must be careful. They don’t have another quarterback who’s taken a college snap, and backup Chris Streveler might not have the arm strength to be an effective Big Ten quarterback.
2 The Gophers should have a strong running game again, with David Cobb coming off a 1,202-yard season, and Berkley Edwards adding a big-play threat. The passing attack must improve, and this goes beyond Leidner.
The offensive line needs to do a better job in pass protection. The Gophers have an experienced line with Tommy Olson, Zac Epping, Josh Campion and Ben Lauer. To take the next step, they might need 6-9 sophomore tackle Jonah Pirsig to emerge.
And Leidner needs more go-to receivers. Maxx Williams is a force, but Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones must build off the experience they gained as freshmen. It could make a difference having KJ Maye healthy at slot receiver.
3 The Gophers had a good defense last year. Now they’ll try to become great. After ranking 25th in scoring defense last year (up from 93rd and 45th the previous two seasons), the Gophers have big holes to fill. Ra’Shede Hageman (Falcons), Brock Vereen (Bears) and Aaron Hill (Rams) are all in NFL camps.
But Kill’s staff feels very good about the players coming back, especially in the secondary, where the Gophers are talented and deep. That should help since the Gophers will face at least seven teams that air it out with the spread offense.
Theiren Cockran and company need to provide more pressure on the defensive line, but the starting linebacker trio — De’Vondre Campbell, Damien Wilson and Jack Lynn — looks promising.
Joe Christensen’s 2014 forecast
The schedule is full of potential emotional swing games that could go either way, starting at TCU. Michigan is flawed enough to make that game winnable, even in Ann Arbor. And if Northwestern can overcome the transfer of Venric Mark and gets its offense rolling, that’s a toss-up, too. It wouldn’t shock me if the Gophers were 7-1 heading into the Iowa showdown at TCF Bank Stadium on Nov. 8. But Minnesota also could be 5-3 and in jeopardy of missing a bowl because that’s a tough November slate.
Assuming Mitch Leidner stays healthy, I predict they’ll go 7-5 and 3-5 in the Big Ten. That should be good for fourth place in the Big Ten West and a match up with Oregon State in the San Francisco Bowl on Dec. 30 at Levi’s Stadium, the new home of the 49ers.