The Gophers football team opens camp Friday and depending on the source of opinion, the squad will either challenge for the Big Ten West title, or finish somewhere near the bottom of the conference.
The outside view is particularly harsh.
A group of Big Ten media members picked the Gophers to finish fifth in their division. Two national preseason publications likewise predicted that same finish.
One publication, Athlon, forecast a 3-6 conference record and did not put one Gophers player on its preseason All-Big Ten first or second team for offense, defense or specialists.
And yet Tracy Claeys says this will be the best Gophers team since the coaching staff arrived in 2011.
We’ll soon learn which theory is correct, but this much is certain: The Gophers have no excuse for not contending in the West.
Privately, folks inside the football department have circled this season for several years as their opportunity to emerge as a serious contender.
The Big Ten’s schedule rotation presented the Gophers a far more manageable 12-game path. They have a third-year starting quarterback in Mitch Leidner. And this season marks Year 6 of the Jerry Kill/Claeys regime, so recruiting, system familiarity and talent depth should not be viewed as roadblocks.
Giddy expectation followed by mediocre-to-poor results has long been the soundtrack of Gophers football. Same thing every fall, a narrative that has grown tiresome, if not entirely predictable.
But here’s the thing: Not often does a Big Ten team have a quarterback who has played in 35 games (29 starts) paired with a schedule that does not include Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State and a defense that has proved to be more than competent.
The Gophers better make hay under that scenario.
Because if not now, then when?
If, as one magazine predicts, the season ends with a 3-6 Big Ten record and another bottom-feeder bowl game, new athletic director Mark Coyle would be justified in taking a long, hard look at Claeys’ ability to lead the program.
Their 2016 opponents posted a combined record of 73-77 last season, which looks even worse when Iowa’s 12-2 mark is removed.
The Gophers finished with a losing record, too, so fans of teams in other markets undoubtedly are counting Minnesota as a win as they dissect their schedules. That’s usually how it works for middling programs.
By comparison, Wisconsin drew a short-straw schedule. The Badgers open against LSU, followed by this four-game stretch before the end of October: at Michigan State, at Michigan, Ohio State, at Iowa.
As Glen Mason would say, B-R-U-T-A-L.
It’s wrong to suggest any Power Five team has an “easy” schedule — especially one that hasn’t proven anything — but the difference in difficulty for the Gophers this season cannot be questioned, even with the addition of a ninth conference game. Six of their seven losses last season came against teams that won at least 10 games.
The Gophers have done nothing to engender blind faith, but it’s not illegal to capitalize when conditions are favorable.
Iowa set the template last season. The Hawkeyes took advantage of a schedule missing the Big Three in crossover games to finish the regular season undefeated and earn a trip to the Rose Bowl.
The Hawkeyes combined crafty quarterback play from C.J. Beathard, a robust running game and opportunistic defense to make their big splash. They began the season unranked (didn’t receive even a single vote) and were picked to finish fourth in the Big Ten West.
The Big Ten’s little brother division allows for that kind of upward mobility from year to year. Those who reside in the West should feel eternally grateful that they aren’t forced to play Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State every season.
Claeys’ decision to make abrupt changes to his offensive coaching staff indicated his urgency to win immediately. The schedule is less taxing, and he returns a senior quarterback who averaged 245 yards passing his final six games last season and a defense that should continue to meet Claeys’ high standards.
There is no excuse for not making something of this opportunity.