What a difference a week makes.
As of last Monday, the Vikings were the football darlings of the state. They were 5-2 -- with question marks, sure, but ones that a lot of fans were willing to brush past in the name of enjoying the ride. The Gophers? They were 4-3, but falling fast. The main topics of conversation were Big Ten stumbles, quarterback redshirts and payment for games NOT played.
Now? Both teams are 5-3. For Vikings fans, the sky is falling after a blowout loss at home to Tampa Bay. Gophers fans are suddenly much more on-board with the Philip Nelson era starting in 2012 instead of 2013. In truth, though? Both of the teams' seasons -- except for timing -- are quite similar. For example:
• Unexpected success: Regardless of how they got there, it is fair to say both teams have better records at this point in the season than a lot of fans would have expected. Both teams, after all, won only three games a year ago. And both already have five victories this year. Quibble over easy schedules in both cases, but know this: Even the "winnable" games usually turned into losses in 2011 for both.
• Best win: The Vikings' best win remains a 24-13 victory over San Francisco, a preseason pick to make a deep run and perhaps reach the Super Bowl. That victory provided the blueprint for success: efficient offense, stingy defense and solid special teams. The Gophers' best win came Saturday, a 44-28 victory over Purdue -- a preseason pick to perhaps reach the Rose Bowl. That victory provided the blueprint for success: a dual-threat QB making plays combined with a defense making enough stops to win.
• Young QB: Both teams will only go as far as their young QB can take them the rest of the season. Nelson was promising even in defeat against Wisconsin and fantastic against Purdue. Team success going forward is predicated on him playing beyond his years. Christian Ponder was lauded early but has since hit a speed bump (or a brick wall). The Vikings can't win unless he returns to early-season form.
• Schedule gets tougher: Both teams are at certain midpoints of their years: the Vikings in terms of actual games, the Gophers in terms of Big Ten games. For both teams, there is no doubt that the early schedule was much easier than the rest of the way figures to be. Both already have eclipsed last year's win total; but to truly judge the year as a major success and not just a step forward, an unexpected win or two down the stretch is vital.