Scoggins: Maybe Gophers' bowl will be half-full this year

  • Article by: CHIP SCOGGINS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 4, 2012 - 9:51 AM

Amid the annual expression of summer optimism, the football team ought to realistically believe a bowl game is a reachable goal.

Brock Vereen chewed on the question for 16 seconds. He started and stopped, then started and stopped again, hoping to accurately articulate what kind of expectations the Gophers football team espouses on the heels of consecutive three-win seasons.

"I would say we want to be great," he said finally. "Why stop short of that? Everybody has their own definition of what a good season is."

That is true, especially for a program that has endured decades of irrelevance and painfully low moments. The success of any season is defined by one's expectations, and the Gophers clearly are not bashful about how they feel heading into the start of fall camp Saturday.

"It's a 180-degree turnaround," continued Vereen, a junior safety. "There's a new vibe around here, just a new atmosphere. Everything is positive, and the team is taking optimism to another level. This is the most confident we've been since I've been here."

That kind of talk probably comes as no surprise to those who have followed the program closely over the years. Unbridled optimism accompanies the start of every Gophers football season. The main themes never change, only the date. We hear the same things every year ...

This team is bigger, faster and stronger. The defense will be improved. The players have better chemistry. They've never worked harder in an offseason.

The glowing outlook is entirely predictable because, frankly, every college football program preaches those same fundamental tenets. They become a universal refrain fueling tedious spring and summer workouts that are necessary but not particularly enjoyable.

The Gophers are no different, but the real question is this: Why should anyone believe anything will be different this season?

"It's a new year," sophomore wide receiver Marcus Jones said. "Coach [Jerry] Kill has definitely put that Minnesota 'Uncommon' mindset in us. We believe it. Minnesota is different this year. Everything about Minnesota is getting better and evolving. It's just time for the program and the team to start winning games."

Exactly. That is the one true tangible measure of progress. Not just words but wins, which Kill acknowledged in his pre-camp media address. Kill repeatedly mentioned the need to "move the program forward" in his second season, and the only way to do that is to win more games.

"It's like anything, you can talk about all these things, but it's what you do when you go play," he said. "I'm looking forward to watching our kids play and prove that they're better."

How much better? The opinion here is that the Gophers should be in position for a bowl game. That would require them to double their win total from last season's 3-9 mark, which is an entirely realistic expectation.

The Gophers are still young (only 10 scholarship seniors), still in rebuilding mode and nowhere near ready to contend for a Big Ten title. But they can and should be in position to play a 13th game this season.

Now, we can argue the merits of second-tier bowl games because of the saturation of them, but again, it's all about perception. For some programs -- the Gophers were in this position not long ago -- a six-win bowl trip qualifies as a disappointment. For the Gophers, it would represent meaningful progress and a sign that things are moving in the right direction.

"Anything short of that is a disappointment," Vereen said.

Here's why: Players have a better understanding of Kill's system, senior quarterback MarQueis Gray should be a more efficient passer in his second season as the starter, the team has more overall depth and the nonconference schedule is softer than a cotton ball. Everything just seems more stable than a year ago.

"I think we're all just much more comfortable with each other," Kill said. "The players, the coaches and what we're trying to accomplish."

Kill's first season was painful in many ways, but one can sense renewed optimism around the football complex. Maybe it's simply that time of year, the buzz that comes with the start of another season. It also could be a sign that this program is in a better place now.

Whatever the case, there is no reason why the Gophers shouldn't be improved and win more games this season. But those are just words until they prove it.

Chip Scoggins ascoggins@startribune.com

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