The Gophers football program has unfairly taken grief for playing unattractive opponents during its nonconference schedule. The point of the nonconference schedule is preparation, and what better way to get ready for the Big Ten than to play as many lousy teams as possible?

Next week, the Gophers will face one that had trouble pulling away from Troy on Saturday. That team is Ohio State, or, if you like nicknames, "Florida Atlantic North."

The Gophers finished off their nonconference schedule Saturday by waxing the original Florida Atlantic 37-3, one year after losing at FAU 42-39. Considering that the Owls returned most of their starters and feature a passing game that should have matched up well with the Gophers' inexperienced secondary, this is a sign of progress.

When Coach Brew took over the Minnesota program, he used the phrase "Rose Bowl" the way most of us use commas. The improvement his team has shown in one year, combined with the ineptitude displayed by most of the conference all September, could mean that half of his prediction could come true sooner than expected.

Not the "Rose."

But maybe the "Bowl."

The Gophers can't be proud of beating Northern Illinois 31-27 or woeful Montana State 35-23 at home. The other two victories, though, separate this Gophers team from the one that went 1-11 last year.

Minnesota won at Bowling Green the week after Bowling Green won at Pitt. Saturday, Florida Atlantic played poorly, but that had a lot to do with the Gophers' improved pass rush and coverage.

Even if you get sick of Tim Brewster's nonstop marketing, he's right in saying that this team is far better than it was a year ago.

Here's Brewster's latest airborne spam: "You know, all you geniuses out there say we can't, we won't -- all that stuff. We believe we can and we will."

Funny, the question was, "Nice day, huh?"

Give Coach Brew this: He appears to have hired quality coordinators, and he's already upgraded his team speed.

Mike Dunbar's offense gets receiver Eric Decker open against defenses that should be quadruple-teaming him. Ted Roof's defense is much more competent than was Everett Withers' last year.

Adam Weber is a fine college quarterback. Decker will be the best receiver representing Minnesota in the Dome this weekend. The defensive backs are vastly improved, even though a few FAU drops helped the cause.

The front seven, with Willie VanDeSteeg healthy and Deon Hightower playing better, is more stout. And the remaining schedule is seductive, with Indiana, Northwestern Iowa and the program formerly known as Michigan coming to the Dome.

The Gophers' offensive players say their improvement is owed to learning Dunbar's difficult offense. The defensive players praise the simplicity of Roof's defense.

"I would say it's night and day from last year," Weber said. "Watching tape, being able to play Bowling Green and then Florida Atlantic and then watching our tapes from last year, it's brutal to watch those tapes, knowing how we executed and how many plays we left out there and how many stupid things we did.

"Just knowing how much better we're executing, it really is night and day."

VanDeSteeg said Withers' defense was so complicated that it tied players in knots. "Coach Roof has been awesome for us," VanDeSteeg said. "He's made it real basic, real easy for us to fly around and make plays. Last year, it was pretty hard."

Brewster prompted this improvement by hiring good coordinators and recruiting faster athletes. Oh, and by running such an incompetent team in 2007 that winning a few games in 2008 has him crowing like he just solved the subprime mortgage crisis.

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m.-noon

on AM-1500 KSTP. •