The Gophers football team is 4-0 and should be favored in its Big Ten opener at Iowa next week.

Let us repeat that slowly: The Gophers are undefeated and should be favored to win at Iowa.

Not sure too many Gophers fans wrote down that scenario in permanent marker before the season, but, hey, college football is nothing if not unpredictable and wacky. Why not join the fun for once?

The Gophers concluded the first section of their season by smothering Syracuse defensively in a 17-10 victory on a chilly Saturday night at TCF Bank Stadium. The Gophers weren't perfect or without a few missteps, but they won and that's all that matters, especially when the opponent represents another BCS conference. Plus, they gave a lively, sellout crowd reason to stay engaged and come back for more.

The Gophers remained one of three undefeated teams in the Big Ten, along with Ohio State and Northwestern. We can joke and mock their soft nonconference schedule, but the Gophers shouldn't feel obligated to apologize for winning because they've experienced the other side far too often in recent years.

Now for the real test: the Big Ten. But that doesn't look nearly as daunting all of a sudden because, frankly, the conference provides a weekly buffet of unimpressive, lousy football. The conference did not have a team ranked in the top 15 of the Associated Press poll this week for the first time since 2001. For good reason.

Many prognosticators predicted the Gophers would win one or two Big Ten games this season. They probably had no idea the Big Ten would be this crummy and that the Gophers would display marked improvement, particularly on defense. One or two league victories would qualify as a disappointment at this point.

The Gophers must prove they can win on the road. Until they do so, it's hard to predict the rest of their season. But the Big Ten looks like a pack of pedestrian teams capable of winning or losing on any given Saturday.

The Gophers clearly have their flaws and limitations, too. They're extremely young and continue to make too many mental mistakes and costly penalties. And their kicking game doesn't inspire much confidence.

But there's also a lot to appreciate with this team. It doesn't take Knute Rockne to see they are vastly improved and more athletic than the three-win Gophers of 2011. They're faster, deeper and more athletic. And they're gaining confidence by the week.

You see it in their body language. They don't slump their shoulders and hang their heads like they did last season whenever something went wrong. Now they fight back. They stand up and make a play to reverse momentum.

Case in point: Senior cornerback Michael Carter was called for two pass interference penalties on one drive in the third quarter, including one in the end zone. He objected to both and was visibly agitated. But he responded with a 3-yard tackle for loss on second-and-goal from a foot out. That forced Syracuse to pass on third down and the Gophers came up with an interception.

The outcome would not have been so positive last season.

"I just think it's a mentality," coach Jerry Kill said. "A year ago, we just couldn't fight back very well, but the kids seem to fight back much more than we have."

Speaking of change, when has the Gophers defense ever been considered a team strength? It is now. That unit plays hard, creates turnovers and has found an honest-to-goodness pass rush with Ra'Shede Hageman and D.L. Wilhite. It's startling to see their defense make so many game-changing plays.

The offense remains a work in progress as they sort out their quarterback situation. The Gophers, however, identified a running game with Donnell Kirkwood, a mini version of former bowling ball tailback Gary Russell. Regardless of how the quarterback situation plays out, the offense should include a heavy dose of Kirkwood, who rushed for 99 yards and two touchdowns.

The Gophers are starting to develop their identity. And they're winning. That's the ultimate sign of progress.

Chip Scoggins •