Can Minnesota be this year's Iowa?
CHICAGO — Let me stop you before you start.
Before you write this off as some made-up storyline that will never play out, consider a few things. The question of “can Minnesota be this year’s Iowa?” isn’t meant to guarantee that the 2016 Gophers will mirror the 2015 Hawkeyes. This isn’t some shot-in-the-dark hot take that Minnesota will have a perfect regular season and become the surprise of the college football world.
Mitch Leidner is not C.J. Beathard. Tracy Claeys is not Kirk Ferentz. It’ll be tough for any team like Iowa, that had a small margin for error, to execute the way that it did for 12 games. And as far as everyone in the Minnesota locker room is concerned, Iowa set the bar for the B1G West and it is still the worthy division favorite in 2016.
So why the comparison to 2015 Iowa? The question is whether or not Minnesota can go from being a middle-of-the-pack B1G West team to a division winner and top-15 team — like Iowa did — in one season. Five-game and even six-game improvements in the B1G have happened before and given a few of the factors in Minnesota’s favor, it wouldn’t be THAT crazy if it happened again.
Ok, now that I got that out of the way, let’s look at why this discussion is actually worth having.
It seemed like everyone believed that last year’s Gophers were dealt one of the toughest hands in the country. Opening against preseason top-five TCU and drawing crossovers against Michigan and Ohio State was rough. The Gophers faced six teams that finished in the Associated Press top 25, four of which were in the top 12.
This year is a different story.
Minnesota’s home-and-home with TCU is over. Instead, Oregon State — one of the worst Power Five teams in the country — will fill that spot. This year’s game is at home. Besides three home non-conference games in which Minnesota will be favored to win, they miss Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State.
You know who else missed those three teams in the regular season? Last year’s Iowa squad.
Minnesota’s B1G opponents this year had a combined conference winning percentage of 0.44 in 2015. Iowa’s 2015 squad faced B1G teams that had a combined conference winning percentage of 0.45 the year before. Iowa even had two Power Five non-conference games, one of which was on the road, compared to Minnesota’s one in 2016.
If the Gophers can split the first two B1G games at Penn State and vs. Iowa, there’s a favorable chance for them to start the season 7-2 or even 8-1. Look at how favorable this four-week stretch is:
There are some parallels to Iowa in that regard. But it’s also worth noting that the B1G now has a nine-game conference schedule, so the Gophers will actually play one more Power Five foe than it did last year. They also drew the short stick and will have to play five B1G road games this year.
So is Minnesota’s 2016 schedule as favorable as some believe it is? Only time will tell.
The Close Calls
The obvious “surprise team” candidates are those who didn’t win a ton of games the year before, but they hung with some tough teams. Those like ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg pointed as Minnesota and Nebraska as possible surprise teams for that reason.
For the record, I HATE, HATE, HATE, HATE, HATE, HATE when a coach says, “we were six plays away from being 8-4.” Basically every Power Five team in America that isn’t Kansas, Oregon State, Purdue and Vanderbilt should be able to say that. So that’s not what I’m about to say about Minnesota. Tracy Claeys didn’t say that — at least publicly — either.
What I took from Minnesota’s close calls was that the program has a little more upside than most probably give it credit for. Immediately after a mid-season coaching change, Minnesota went through a stretch that was tougher than any B1G team dealt with.
The Gophers were a Drew Wolitarsky butt cheek away from stunning Michigan. That one still eats at them.
“It’s definitely a situation that I think won’t ever happen again because we understand that now,” Leidner said. “But it was definitely one we wish we could have back.”
A week later, they were within a touchdown of national-champion favorite Ohio State in Columbus with two minutes left. After that, they went to Iowa City — their third straight night game against a top-15 team — and lost by five. You can even go back to the TCU game and point to another one-possession loss.
Was Minnesota as good as any of those four teams? No, because if the Gophers were, they would’ve executed far better down the stretch. But it’s hard to overlook the fact that Minnesota hung tight with all four top-12 opponents last year despite a rash of injuries.
The Overflowing Confidence
I don’t like to look too much into preseason talk. The clichés are endless.
“I’m in the best shape of my life.”
“We have great leadership on this team.”
“We learned a lot from the adversity we went through last year.”
It’s understandable. If you’re not confident, then why suit up? Leidner was asked about the biggest difference between the 2016 team compared to the 2015 group.
“You can feel like when a team has a lot of positive energy and knows that they’re gonna win a lot of football games,” Leidner said. “Even when we went 8-5 two years in a row, it didn’t feel like it feels right now.”
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He provided examples, too. Last year, Minnesota had roughly 4-5 guys late for running every week. This year, they’ve had three show up tardy all summer. And when the guys did show up late, the veterans did the punishment workout with them after practice. That, Minnesota players said, is because there’s less divide between underclassmen and upperclassmen.
Take that for what it is. Punctual groups with team-first veterans don’t always win 10 games, but it certainly isn’t a cause for concern.
Here’s what I take more stock in. Claeys came out and said that he expects this team to win 8-10 games. A 10-win season at Minnesota would be historic. The Gophers have only done that once since joining the B1G in 1953.
It’s rare to hear a head coach throw out a win total like that. Only a coach overflowing with confidence would make such a claim.
But part of that confidence stems from none other than Iowa. Sure, the Hawkeyes are still the B1G West favorite. But it’s because of their one-year turnaround that teams like Minnesota believe a similar feat is attainable if it tightens up some of its loose screws. After all, it’s not like Iowa won with a bunch of four and five-star athletes. There were only eight of those on the entire roster, which was why they were a surprise team to begin with.
“It really does (open the door),” Minnesota linebacker Jack Lynn said of Iowa’s sudden emergence. “It showed us the blueprint of how they became successful. They were just a really close team and they understood where they needed to go and what they needed to do to be successful.”
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Leidner said that he doesn’t even feel like a “middle-of-the-pack” team and that the Gophers are “at the top.” Claeys still said Iowa is the benchmark, but that he doesn’t feel like the Hawkeyes are miles ahead of anyone in the B1G West.
That’s because the Hawkeyes were the “every-man” team.
“It told us that anybody can win on any Saturday if you come to play, and that’s what (Iowa) did,” Minnesota safety Damarius Travis said. “They played good football all the way around. You can’t take that from those guys.”
A team with 14 returning starters, including a third-year starter at quarterback, has far more than most teams have. In fact, Purdue is the only B1G team with more starters back.
Minnesota does, however, have personnel hurdles to overcome.
Leidner obviously has to be better. For the Gophers to be this year’s Iowa, he has to take a page out of Beathard’s playbook. He can’t make the costly mistakes and he has to extend plays out the pocket. After major foot surgery, Leidner said he’ll finally be over the initial ligament tear he suffered two years ago against TCU. He said he hasn’t had pain since coming back from Fourth of July.
Staying healthy and finally putting it all together is a major hurdle for Leidner and the Gophers.
Returning starters aside, Minnesota lost a lot more talent to the draft than people probably realized. Eric Murray and Briean Boddy-Calhoun were two of the best cornerbacks in the country. De’Vondre Campbell shot up draft boards once people actually watched tape of him. And KJ Maye might not have been drafted, but he was Minnesota’s best offensive player in 2015.
But there’s good news.
Travis is back after missing basically all of 2015. He would’ve been an All-B1G candidate last year, but he went down in the season opener. He’s expected to be ready to go for his senior season. Jalen Myrick also developed into a key playmaker in the secondary while battling some injuries of his own. Those guys missed 14 games last year, but both are healthy. Travis even said that he feels this secondary is more talented than last year’s.
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Minnesota also might have Campbell’s replacement in talented four-star freshman Carter Coughlin. It’s uncertain if he’ll start Day 1, but he’s as talented a defensive player as the Gophers have landed in recent memory.
And yes, the loss of Maye hurts. But Minnesota does return virtually every other skill player. Minnesota has a two-headed running back attack in Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith that’s ready to establish itself after a promising first season. Leidner has a couple other reliable targets in Wolitarsky and underrated tight end Brandon Lingen.
For Minnesota to really resemble 2015 Iowa, it’ll need dominant offensive line play, which it didn’t get last year because of injuries. Returning two starters up front isn’t horrible, but above all else, the Gophers have to stay healthy. If they can establish continuity on that line, the skill players will obviously be in much better position to take that next step.
Just staying healthy is key for the Gophers. Their two-deep players lost 119 games to injury last season. A team with Minnesota’s depth can’t survive that.
But even if Minnesota avoids injuries and gets improved play from returning skill players, there’s still one hurdle greater than any other waiting in late-November. It’s the same thing that’s been standing in Minnesota’s way every year since that historic 2003 season.
Wisconsin. And yes, the Gophers realize that the 12-year drought is still hanging over them heading into 2016.
“People from Wisconsin think they’re just the greatest thing ever around the University of Minnesota campus,” Leidner said. “They love wearing their Wisconsin t-shirts on our campus…If we got that axe, we’d be able to give them a new shirt. Give them a Gopher shirt.”
What did we learn from all of this? You shouldn’t be convinced that the Gophers are destined for mediocrity. You also shouldn’t be convinced that returning starters + a favorable schedule = a division title.
You should be convinced that Minnesota’s upside is far greater than some might realize. It’s certainly greater than any other team that won two conference games in 2015. The pieces are in place this year for Minnesota’s surprise run. The pieces were in place last year for Iowa’s surprise run.
Not even diehard Iowa fans could’ve predicted a 12-0 regular season. Nobody will predict the Gophers to go 12-0. Just remember that in the three seasons before 2015, Iowa won an average of six games. That’s it. Minnesota won an average of seven games the last three years.
In other words, crazier things have happened.