Unlike his predecessor, Jerry Kill promised nothing when he took over the Gophers football program last winter. He didn't predict Rose Bowl trips or offer any other grandiose declarations.

Gophers fans welcomed that approach as a breath of fresh air. Tempered expectations trumped unfulfilled promises because that meshed more with the reality of their situation.

That worked in Year 1 of Kill's long-term plan, but the bar must be raised going forward. It's OK to expect and demand more.

The Gophers ended their season Saturday by throttling a woeful Illinois team 27-7, finishing with a 3-9 record. They finished on a high note and need to use that as a springboard into their offseason.

Growing pains were understandable this season. Everything was new. New coaches, new systems, a lot of new faces in the lineup.

That component is no longer part of the equation. Armed with a soft nonconference schedule and a year in Kill's system, the Gophers should be in contention for a bowl game next season.

That's hardly the gold standard for success with the proliferation of bowl games, but the program needs to display tangible proof of progress. Fans' patience eroded even more this season, and fan apathy reached a point where they did not fill their 50,000-seat stadium against Wisconsin, Iowa or Nebraska. The crowd was so small for Saturday's finale they could have held it at St. Thomas.

Kill said this week that his program is taking "baby steps" but otherwise declined to outline his short-term goals in concrete terms.

"I'm not going to make all those statements, but I will tell you, we'll be better next year," he said. "I can tell you that. Our goal is going to be set high."

Kill sounded particularly upbeat and optimistic as he discussed his team's progress the final month. His players finally realized the effort required to compete at this level. They showed some resolve and willingness to fight back in tough times.

That, however, should be the minimum standard now. The fact they didn't fold up tents and quit on the season is admirable, but the Gophers should be judged more on results next season.

Everyone knows that Tim Brewster left the program in shambles and with talent deficiencies. Those problems aren't solved overnight, or in one season. But it's time to turn the page and aim higher.

Nobody is suggesting the Gophers are ready to contend for the Big Ten championship. Or win nine games. But if they're sitting with three victories this time next season, any attempt to lament the team's youth and lack of talent will be greeted more skeptically.

Kill said his team's offseason work begins Monday with players hitting the weight room and the coaching staff hitting the recruiting trail. The players need to get bigger, faster, stronger. The coaches need to upgrade the talent and plug holes in the roster, notably in the secondary.

Beyond that, the Gophers need to establish an identity as a program and, as Kill noted, become more consistent in all three phases. They weren't competitive in four games and entered Saturday ranked 110th nationally (out of 120 teams) in total offense, 93rd in total defense and 93rd in punting.

But this looked like a different team by season's end. You could see the improvement. That's a positive sign. Now they move forward with fewer unknowns, beginning with their quarterback situation.

MarQueis Gray made strides after a shaky start, but he must develop into a consistent passer to complement his running ability. By the time the Gophers open the 2012 season, he will have gone through two spring practices, two fall camps and one season as the starter. He won't be new to the position or system anymore. They can't use that excuse again.

He's just one piece of the puzzle, though. The Gophers relied heavily on young players this season. Their experiences should pay dividends.

"I'll be disappointed if we don't move it forward," Kill said.

Kill has talked at length about the "process" of rebuilding this program. The Gophers completed the first phase Saturday.

Now they need to take that next step.

Chip Scoggins ascoggins@startribune.com