"Know Thy Foe" continues today as we preview the Minnesota Golden Gophers. The Badgers and the Gophers will renew their annual rivalry game in Camp Randall Stadium on Oct. 20, with Paul Bunyan's Axe and the Badgers' eight-game winning streak riding on the outcome.
These two teams know each other fairly well, but it never hurts to get some extra insight. Matt OConnell of GopherIllustrated.com was kind enough to give us the scoop on Jerry Kill's team, which will be looking for its first winning season since 2008.
Know Thy Foe: Minnesota
What kind of shape are the Gophers in as they head into Jerry Kill's second year at the helm? Is this the year where playing younger guys will pay off, or is the team still a work in progress?
Matt OConnell: The answer to this is yes … Yes, playing younger guys will start to pay off this year, but in many ways the team is still a work in progress. The offense could be very good this year, but the defense is going to be relying on a lot of young players at key positions. The Gophers should be much better this year, but it is unknown how that will translate in the win column. This team should contend for a bowl berth, and if they catch a few breaks could be an eight-win team. That said they could also be a four-win team. A lot will depend on how the defense steps up this season.
Obviously getting Gray back at quarterback is a bonus, but what should we expect to see out of the Gophers on offense? Is Kill's personal system in place now?
MO: Ideally the offense will not have to rely as heavily on Gray as a runner, but that does not mean the running game will not be a major focus this year. Kill and offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover want a strong running game to set up everything else they do. The problem is that they have yet to find a feature back. They will give junior college transfer James Gillum the first crack at being the man in the backfield. There are several young backs who will also see some carries and could work their way into being the feature back. Senior tight end John Rabe could be Gray's main target as a receiver. There are also several young receivers who have the skills to be big time players including incoming freshmen Andre McDonald and Jamel Harbison, both of whom will likely see playing time this fall.
From an outside perspective, it seems like defense has been the Gophers' biggest Achilles heel these last few years. How much improvement should fans expect in year two, and who are the defense's key players?
MO: The good news is that the defense can't get much worse. The coaching staff put a huge priority on recruiting defensive talent that can play right away last year and it should pay off. The defensive backfield will likely feature four new starters from a year ago, but considering the play from that unit last season that is likely a positive. Mike Rallis will move to inside linebacker to replace the late Gary Tinsley and should be a good fit in that spot. The defensive line will also look much different this year with both starting tackles gone and plenty of young talent vying to get after the quarterback. Junior tackle Ra'Shede Hageman has to talent to be a first team All-Big Ten player, but needs to show he can put together strings of consistent games. Over all, if some of the young players can play up to expectations the defense will be better, but is still likely a year or two away from playing at more than an mediocre to average level.
What is the best-case and worst-case scenario for the Gophers this year? Is a bowl game a reasonable expectation, and how long of a leash does Kill have if they miss that mark again? Does having a new athletic director change anything?
MO: The likely best case for Minnesota is eight wins this year. They should win at least three of their non-conference games and have several Big Ten games that they have a very realistic shot of winning. Worst case is likely a four win season. The team is now more familiar with the systems that Kill wants to run and are used to the expectations of the coaches. Kill is very popular with fans, the players, and the administration. Even with a new AD on board Kill is in no danger of losing his job even if he has a bad year. Unlike his predecessor Kill has a long track record of turning around bad programs and will be given not only the time, but also the tools to make Minnesota a winner. In all likelihood he will have at least three seasons beyond 2012 to prove what he can do at Minnesota.
I know it's early, but what can we expect to see during the Battle for Paul Bunyan's Axe this year? It's been a while, but could the Gophers pull off the upset in Madison? Will they?
MO: The 2012 battle should be much closer that last season's match-up. The Gophers are getting better and will be hungry to bring the Axe back to Minneapolis. Wisconsin has to replace some key players and could be a bit more vulnerable to the upset this year, but it will still be difficult for the Gophers. Right now I still lean towards picking the Badgers to win, but Kill will have the Gophers ready to play and firing on all cylinders.
Thanks again to Matt for giving us the scoop on the Gophers. For more news about the Minnesota football team, go to GopherIllustrated.com
For more Wisconsin Badgers news, notes and discussion, follow John on Twitter.