If there was a bigger surprise in the Big Ten during the 2013 football season than what took place in Minneapolis, you’d be hard pressed to convince me otherwise.
Minnesota started off hot, winning all four of its non-conference games. However, it appeared like a bit of fool’s gold as they also lost the first two games of the Big Ten season to Iowa and Michigan respectively. The latter saw head coach Jerry Kill miss the trip due to a reoccurrence of his epilepsy, and it appeared the Gophers were about to tank.
Instead, the team responded by reeling off four straight wins, including victories over Nebraska and Penn State, all while head coach Jerry Kill reduced his game day role. It ended in an eight-win season for the first time in a long time, and that means expectations have been raised.
The question entering 2014 is are those expectations realistic for a program whose margin for error seemed so slim last season?
Getting Michigan and Ohio State out of the East division may not help matters this season, but could it be that Kill and his long-tenured coaching staff have found the formula that will win games in Minneapolis?
Let’s take a look at how we see Minnesota’s 2014 season actually playing out.
2014 Minnesota Golden Gophers Schedule:
Aug. 28: vs. Eastern Illinois: WIN
Eastern Illinois did hang with Northern Illinois and went 12-2 last season while making the FCS playoffs. That’s all well and good, but they’ve lost a head coach and the maestro behind those results—quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. While Minnesota will be living life without star defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman, this game shouldn’t be a struggle for the Gophers. Look for Minnesota to start fast and win going away.
Sept. 6: vs. Middle Tennessee State: WIN
The Blue Raiders are no strangers to Big Ten opposition, but don’t let an 8-5 record last season fool you. All but two of the eight wins came in Conference-USA play, and MTSU wasn’t exactly a defensive juggernaut in C-USA play either. Minnesota also isn’t the same team that had to fight hard for a 24-17 win on the road to MTSU in 2010. Don’t expect this to go down anywhere close to how that game went down. Minnesota wins this one easily.
Sept. 13: at TCU: WIN
Had this game been last season there’s little doubt that a trip to Fort Worth would’ve ended in a loss. However, Horned Frogs head coach Gary Patterson has himself a mess of a program right now. His best players keep screwing up off the field and it keeps costing them on it. Predicting a win here has little to do with confidence in how good or great Minnesota may be and just how messed up TCU is right now. This is one game against a “Power 5” opponent on the road that I’m confident a Big Ten team can win.
Sept. 20: vs. San Jose State: WIN
David Foles isn’t in the fold for San Jose State and that means the shootout that was 43-24 win isn’t likely to be repeated. By that I mean, San Jose State may not score 24 points and Minnesota is just as likely to put up 43 points on the visiting team. Minnesota will have a field day in the run game in this one, and it could be quarterback Mitch Leidner doing most of the damage. I just don’t trust that SJSU’s defense is up to task against one of the Big Ten’s premier offensive lines either. Look for a near repeat, if not a bigger blowout, for the Gophers.
Sept. 27: at Michigan: LOSS
There is nothing that would help redefine the Gophers football program than winning the Little Brown Jug from Michigan; unfortunately this one is being played at the scene of the 42-13 crime — Michigan Stadium. However, I do see these teams being a lot closer on the field this time around. Michigan appears to have offensive line issues once again in camp and Minnesota has no such quarterback issues. Leidner appears to be a much better passing quarterback and that will help the Gophers at least stay competitive this time around. It won’t lead to breaking a six-game win streak though.
Oct. 11: vs. Northwestern: WIN
These two teams are very familiar with each other as former members of the Legends division, and before last season these two programs were supposed to be heading in different paths. One year later and that seems to be the case once again, and this could be the deciding game for these two teams’ hopes of being a contender in the Big Ten West division. Having this game at TCF Bank Stadium is a massive help for the Gophers, as is having more all-around talent. Northwestern will give them a test, it just won’t be enough in this matchup. Minnesota solidifies itself as the “other” team in what many thought would only be a three-horse race.
Oct. 18: vs. Purdue: WIN
It’s a good thing Minnesota is getting some reprieve after a meeting with Michigan. Last season there was no such luxury and the Gophers were fine. This year, seeing Northwestern and a struggling Purdue squad following the Wolverines is just what the doctor ordered. Unless there’s a drastic change in the Purdue defense, I expect this game to be won by the Gophers in the trenches. They’ve got a better offensive and defensive line, and that will make all the difference in the world.
Oct. 25: at Illinois: WIN
Taking it’s tour through the easier part of the Big Ten West, Minnesota goes to what could be a tricky matchup in Champaign. Illinois has an offense that could be very competitive, and a defense that appears to be turning a corner. Yet, Illinois is still going to struggle against better teams. The Gophers are exactly that in 2014, and I can see a defensive touchdown by the Gophers giving them a big enough margin to not have to worry late in this contest.
Nov. 8: vs. Iowa: WIN
Floyd of Rosedale has been a topsy-turvy affair since Jerry Kill took over at the helm of the Gophers program. He took the Big Ten by surprise in winning it his first year on campus in 2011, but the pig hasn’t returned to Minneapolis on a permanent basis since then. Look for that to change in 2014, and that’s because these two teams are a lot closer talent-wise than most think. Add in this game being at home and I see every possibility for the Gophers to take this one.
Nov. 15: vs. Ohio State: LOSS
While it’s been nice playing against, and beating, your peers in the Big Ten…this one is stepping up against the big boys. Even with the news that Braxton Miller is out for the season, it doesn’t chance Ohio State having the most dominate offensive line in the Big Ten. It also doesn’t change the fact that Minnesota has a terrible history against the Buckeyes. Look for this to be a small reminder that Minnesota still has a ways to go to compete at the top of the conference.
Nov. 22: at Nebraska: LOSS
Beating Nebraska is apparently no big thing anymore, after all Minnesota did it last season. However, this isn’t 2013 and Nebraska isn’t breaking in a brand new quarterback. This game also isn’t in TCF Bank Stadium and that’s a major issue for the Gophers. That doesn’t mean the game won’t be close, in fact I expect that to happen — yet the Gophers are just not on the same level talent-wise.
Nov. 29: at Wisconsin: LOSS
The battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe hasn’t been much of a battle as of late. That’s what happens when you’ve let Wisconsin keep the trophy for an entire decade. Unfortunately for Minnesota, this game is the second of two road games against expected Big Ten West division leaders and it’s going to be the second straight loss. Minnesota feels like it is closing the gap on Wisconsin, and that’s true, but the Badgers are likely focusing on a potential spot in the College Football Playoff. That means a laser-like focus on the game at hand, and that’s bad news when combined with this one being at Camp Randall.
Overall Record: 8-4
Big Ten Record: 5-3