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July 22, 2014

Better know your foe: Minnesota

Minnesota turned in to a decent team in 2013. The Gophers finished the year as FootballOutsiders.com's No. 55 team, up from a No. 79 finish in 2012 and a No. 97 finish in Jerry Kill's first season.

That's pretty significant progress for a team that was stuck in the dumps under Tim Brewster.

The core of last year's young team is back in 2014, but a tougher schedule might mean that any progress shows up on paper instead of in the win-loss column.

Recruiting Footprint

Minnesota's recruiting map reminds me of Nebraska's in how wide spread each team is forced to recruit. Of the Big Ten schools we've looked at only Nebraska (11) and Iowa (25) have offered fewer in-state prospects than Minnesota (27) over the last four years.

Minnesota's relatively shallow football talent pool has forced the Gophers to look elsewhere, mainly in Florida and Texas.

If you've been reading my other previews that shouldn't surprise you. Florida and Texas are two of the country's most populous states, which gives schools from around the country two massive talent pools to pull from.

Of the two states the Gophers have had the most success in Texas over the last few years. 13 Texas natives have signed with Minnesota since 2011, out of 104 total offers.

I'd count that 12.5 percent success rate as a win, considering how many programs depend on Texas to keep their rosters stocked.

For a state that doesn't produce a lot of Division 1 talent, the Gophers have been able to keep a lot of their in-state talent at home in Minnesota. 19 of 27 in-state prospects have ended up signing with the Gophers during the period I studied, but the cream of the crop often heads to greener pastures. Minnesota signed just one of the state's last five Rivals.com four-star prospects.

The Gophers have also done pretty well for themselves in Kansas and Alabama, which caught me off guard. Not many other Big Ten programs have ventured down into the deep south to recruit in Alabama and Auburn's respective back yards, so we'll see if they continue to invest resources there in the future.

Team Schemes

I'd normally describe last year's Minnesota squad as "pass-averse," but that doesn't quite capture the whole picture. Only Navy, Army, Air Force, New Mexico, and Georgia Tech passed less than the Gophers last year. In short, that list includes four teams who employ an option offense and the Lobos, who had the No. 11 rushing offense last year according to S&P+.

The Gophers didn't run because they were unstoppable in the trenches, they ran (and ran some more) because it was better than passing. Incumbent starter Phillip Nelson completed just 50.5 percent of his passes in 11 games, which forced the Gophers to make a switch to freshman quarterback Mitch Leidner. Leidner was better, but not by much: he completed 55.1 percent of his passes. There's room for growth there, and you could certainly blame part of that on a young group of wide receivers.

The bright side for the Gophers is they get almost everyone back from last year's passing attack, except for Nelson and Derrick Engel, their top wide receiver. If Leidner keeps his feet under him you would expect the passing game to improve a little, especially since they return a lot of experience from last year's offensive line.

The running game was good enough to help the Gophers beat the teams they should have. David Cobb emerged as a consistent running threat: he finished the year with 1,202 yards (5.1 yards per carry) and seven touchdowns. He's back for his senior season, and I'll be interested to see if he can top that stat line with a lot of experience around him- was his success due more to volume or individual talent?

But if I were to predict that the Gophers get back to another bowl game, I'd probably stake my prediction on the strength of their returning defense. Seven starters are back from a unit that finished the year at No. 47 according to F/+, but they'll have to replace some of last year's star power: Ra'Shede Hageman and Brock Vereen were both drafted in April. They have to replace three members of last year's front seven, but if they can stay strong against the run they have the experience in the secondary to improve on last year's end-of-season defensive ranking.

John Veldhuis covers Wisconsin football, basketball and recruiting for BadgerBlitz.com on the Rivals.com network. Follow him on Twitter at @JohnVeldhuis.

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