To local football followers: 'Competitive' is years away

  • Article by: PATRICK REUSSE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 17, 2011 - 11:36 AM

Task of rebuilding Vikings, Gophers is neither small nor quick.

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Vikings coach Leslie Frazier walked of the field after the Packers beat the Vikings 45-7 durning Monday Night football at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis.

Photo: Jerry Holt, Star Tribune

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Minnesota's major football teams met the rivals from Wisconsin in a pair of games, starting Saturday afternoon and concluding Monday night.

The Gophers and the Vikings were outscored by a combined 87-20. Among other accomplishments, they forced eight incompletions in 49 pass attempts from the Badgers and the Packers.

Minnesotans took in these blowouts and were left to ponder: Which collection of our favored warriors will be the first to go from stumblebums to competitive?

The first requirement is to define "competitive." It's easy in the NFL: When the Vikings return to the playoffs, they will be in the top 38 percent of NFC teams, and that's competitive.

A bowl appearance does not in itself do that for the Gophers. In 2010, 47 of the 66 BCS programs played in a bowl game. Placing in the top 71 percent of teams does not qualify as competitive.

This season, 10 of the 12 Big Ten teams could wind up in bowl games. Placing in the top 83 percent of a conference doesn't count as competitive.

The Gophers open at UNLV in 2012, a horrendous program. This is followed by home games with New Hampshire, Western Michigan and subpar Syracuse.

Three or four nonconference victories, followed by the two or three Big Ten victories needed for bowl eligibility, doesn't do it. The Gophers won't be competitive until they manage to reach .500 in the Big Ten.

So, which team gets there first: the Vikings or the Gophers?

The history of the NFL salary-cap era (starting in 1994) tells us that turning a team around doesn't have to be a long process. Then again, the salary cap has reached a point in recent years where few teams are forced to surrender difference-makers.

The big cap seems to have made the quick turnaround more of a challenge than several years back. And to see so many flaws for the Vikings in this second consecutive disastrous season, it's tough to imagine it taking fewer than another three years to reach the top six of the NFC.

The offensive line is poor, and the best of the bunch, left guard Steve Hutchinson, is 34. The inside of the defense isn't as tough as in the recent past, and tackle Kevin Williams and middle linebacker E.J. Henderson are both 31.

The one quality player in the secondary, Antoine Winfield, is 34 and injured again. The best of the younger corners, Chris Cook, has a serious legal problem. And the team hasn't had a playmaker at safety since Darren Sharper in 2007.

The outside receivers are basically guys off the street. There are two great weapons in running back Adrian Peterson and slot receiver Percy Harvin. Soon, rookie tight end Kyle Rudolph could become a third.

Those three create hope for a future of big plays, since the Vikings appear to have filled the greatest void with the arrival of Christian Ponder as the starter at quarterback.

Ponder was flummoxed by what the Green Bay defense had for him Monday, but he's a rookie with a strong arm, reasonable accuracy, outstanding mobility and a big brain.

The Vikings should be able to fill enough holes with prime draft choices in the next couple of years for Ponder to lead them back to .500 in 2013, and back to being a competitive -- as in, a playoff team -- in 2014.

The Gophers have it tougher. The Big Ten schedule will remain at eight games over the next five years. The Gophers' annual opponents are Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska, Iowa, Northwestern and designated rival Wisconsin.

Take an optimistic look at potential victories and you get this: One combined victory vs. Michigan and Nebraska, three combined vs. Wisconsin and Michigan State, five combined vs. Iowa and Northwestern. That's 9-21 over five years -- a deep hole on the way to .500 in the Big Ten.

What the Gophers will have going for them is the same thing as the Vikings: a talented new quarterback. Philip Nelson, the 6-3, 216-pound star at Mankato West, looks like the best Minnesota prep quarterback since Joe Mauer.

Jerry Kill could choose to have Nelson redshirt in 2012, as MarQueis Gray plays his senior season. If so, mark down 2015 -- Nelson's junior season -- when the Gophers reach 4-4 in the Big Ten and join the ranks of the competitive.

Patrick Reusse can be heard noon to 4 weekdays on 1500ESPN. • preusse@startribune.com

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