Most of the sports books in Las Vegas have the Gophers football team as a 14-point underdog in its home opener against Texas Christian on Sept. 3. While Gophers coach Jerry Kill believes his team can give the Horned Frogs a real battle, he knows it will be a big challenge.

"They're good; a year ago I said they were going to be a good football team and the rest spoke for itself," Kill said about TCU's 12-1 season and No. 3 ranking in the final Associated Press and USA Today coaches poll. "They could have very well been in the playoffs. They don't lose a lot of players. … Their 4x100 [track relay team] won the Big 12 and two of those guys [Kolby Listenbee and Cameron Echols-Luper] were wide receivers that ran 10.1 and 10.2.

"So they can run; athletically they'll be just like they were last year. They're very, very talented with a lot of speed. Other people are projecting them to be ranked No. 2 or No. 3 in the country when they come here. But a lot of people think they may be the best team in the country besides Ohio State."

Kill said the Gophers got off to a slow start against TCU when they lost 30-7 in the third game last season, but the experience of winning games at Nebraska, at Michigan and playing Ohio State tough at TCF Bank Stadium should help the team understand how they need to play in the opener.

"I think we were much better prepared when we played Ohio State, and we handled their speed better, so our kids are excited about playing [TCU]," Kill said. "It's the first game of the year and we'll both be a little bit rusty. Anytime you play the first game of the year, preparation will change a little bit. In fall camp, we're going to have to make some decisions early with players and personnel and start preparing for TCU. … But they're one that I know our kids are excited about playing."

Kill and his defensive coaches have said all offseason that their defensive backfield might be the best they've ever had, but he also acknowledged the team will need help from other defensive players against TCU's speed.

"I think that the guys are going to be really critical in this football game; it's usually some of our linebackers on outside blitzes to keep them off balance," he said. "You just can't sit there. But [junior defensive lineman] Hank Ekpe and [redshirt senior defensive lineman Theiren Cockran] are going to have to play really good football games. We rotate [senior] Alex Keith in there and [sophomore] Gaelin Elmore, but the guy that can really go off the edge, and probably our fastest guy, is Hank Ekpe. He's our most improved."

Kill also talked about the Gophers' second opponent in Colorado State, featuring Rashard Higgins at wide receiver. Higgins had 96 receptions for 1,750 yards and 17 touchdowns as a sophomore last season and is considered one of the best receivers in the country.

"They lost a couple players in the draft — their quarterback [Garrett Grayson] went out and their running back [Dee Hart] — but their wide receiver stayed," Kill said. "He was on several All-American teams, very talented. A new coach [Mike Bobo]. It seems like every year we're going to get a new coach with the teams we play, but it won't change a lot.

"They'll be very similar to what they were a year ago. You go out and play in the altitude and that always concerns you a little bit. Colorado State has beaten Colorado a number of times over the last four or five years. They were 10-3 last year.

"Our schedule is tough, everyone has said the toughest in the Big Ten. We know that, and our kids have worked harder this summer than probably any team of my 32 years of coaching. [Strength] coach [Eric] Klein has gotten after them good, and we have to. We have to be in great physical and mental conditioning to go through the season we're going to have to go through."

Better than a year ago

A friend of mine told me the other day that no doubt the Twins were in a slump after losing four consecutive games before Thursday's 3-0 victory over the Angels, but it's still unfathomable to believe the team would be 51-44 and leading the chase for the final American League wild card spot by three games in late July.

Last season at this time, the Twins were 44-51 and 10½ games out of first place.

The Twins' shutout against the Angels was their first victory against them since Sept. 9, 2013, when they won 6-3 at Target Field. But perhaps most important for the Twins' future was Ervin Santana looked like the ace pitcher they hoped he would be, striking out seven — including two-time All-Star MVP Mike Trout twice — and allowing only four hits in eight shutout innings.

Jottings

•A few days ago, we were mourning the death of former Gophers track coach Roy Griak, one great coach and person. Then this week it's Paul Faust, a former great all-around athlete at Edina and ex-Gophers and Vikings player. The Faust family was one of a kind. Paul was a captain of the Gophers' 1965 squad and was given the Big Ten Conference medal for outstanding student-athlete that season. Paul's memorial service was held at Interlachen Country Club on Tuesday with arrangements made for 200 mourners, but more than 400 showed up. Paul's father, George, played at North High School, was an outstanding star with the Gophers, was drafted in 1939 by the Chicago Cardinals, and he and his wife, Greta, were loved by all.

•NCAA rules now permit college football teams to make food available to the players at any time of the day. The Gophers menu includes turkey, ham, and roast beef sandwiches, a salad bar, energy bites, fruit, energy and protein bars, packages of nuts, milk and chocolate milk, cereal, smoothies, vitamins and Powerade. They also have breakfast and dinner catered Monday through Friday, and have taco bars, hot dogs, pasta bars and pizza available at different times throughout the week.

•If you ask Glen Perkins why he is leading the American League in saves with 29, the Twins closer will tell you that the best thing that happened to him in his early career was to have Joe Nathan as a teammate from 2006-2011, because he learned a lot from Nathan.

•Former Gophers center Mo Walker signed with VL Pesaro in Italy. Walker played with the Orlando Magic during the NBA Summer League, averaging 7.3 points, 2.0 rebounds and 1.0 assist per game. Walker will go overseas but don't be surprised if he were to get a call to the NBA at some point.

•Thursday night was another big turnout for the fourth annual Date Night with football coach Jerry Kill and his wife, Rebecca, which is put on by the Gophers and was held at the Triple Crown Suite at Canterbury Park.

Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on 830-AM at 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. shartman@startribune.com