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.