Friday, August 21, 2009

Minnesota Gophers Season Preview Part I

Don't look now (well ok, you can if you want to), but we're 15 days away from Minnesota and Syracuse kicking off the season in the Carrier Dome at noon on Saturday, September 5th. 15 days! From real, live actual college football! Or think of it this way: one week till the State Fair, where you can stuff your face with cheese curds, cookies and milk, and anything and everything you can imagine "On a stick." If your heart and arteries don't explode, then guess what happens the weekend after that? GOPHER FOOTBALL! The weekend after that? We get a brand spankin' new stadium. See, we'll get there. Opening Day is right around the bacon-on-a-stick corner.

So looking ahead to that most glorious of days, just what CAN we expect from your 2009 Minnesota Golden Gophers? The national pundits, from websites to TV to preseason mags, have the maroon and gold slotted at 5-7 wins, which would put them anywhere from 7-9th in the conference. From what we know, and with all the question marks this team faces after last year's horrible finish, 5-7 wins is not unfair. Not at all. I like it because the Gophs can fly under the national and conference radar for another season. If they blow up and things go right, then everyone loves us. If we see some struggles in coach Tim Brewster's third year, then that's what everyone expected.

But what should WE as Gopher fans expect? I'm going to start to tackle that one today. I think 5 wins in 2009 is the absolute basement for this team, and I'd be shocked if it happens. It would definitely be disappointing to take a step backwards in season three under Brewster, and I don't see it happening. Regardless of all the question marks, I think the Gophs should expect to go bowling again in 2009, even if it's back to the Insight Bowl or the dreaded Motor City Bowl. If we want to do better than that, however, a lot of things are going to have to go well. We'll break down the conference more later, but the quick summation would be that the talent level overall is better than last year, and only the two schools from the Hoosier State don't have a legit shot at going bowling. After Ohio State and Penn State at the top (both of whom are being overrated to start the year), you've got a logjam of 7 teams battling it out for positioning. Some, like Illinois, Iowa and perhaps Michigan State, have a shot at the conference title, while Wisconsin, Northwestern, and your Golden Gophers could go to a New Year's Day bowl if things break right for them. Michigan should at least double it's win total from last year to be bowl eligible, but they're another year away from fighting for a top four finish, let along the conference title.

So as Jer and others have said, even if the Gophers have a better team this year than last, it might not show up in the win column because the conference as a whole is that much better. In my wildest dreams, I don't think a trip to Pasadena is in store, but a New Year's Day bowl IF a lot of things happen and develop, is a possibility.

I'll split this into three parts, starting today with a look at the roster. We have a few areas of no concern, and plenty others with a lot of questions. Here's my positional list from least concerning to most concerning:
Adam Rittenburg ranked the Gophers as the second best unit in the conference, and you will get no argument here. Incumbent starter Adam Weber will be capable, and anything we get from Marqueis Gray is gravy. And I expect the Gravy Train to be flowin' this year!

We know Eric Decker's the second best receiver in the conference, and is rightfully getting some preseason All-American love. With him as the anchor, there's plenty of talent behind him that's going to sort itself out. The coaching staff seems to have zero concerns about JC transfer HAYO! Carpenter starting opposite Decker, and he should provide the big play receiving threat we've lacked here since...well...probably ever. I think Troy Stoudermire takes a big step this year to becoming a dangerous offensive weapon, and then we still have sophs Brandon Green and Da'Jon McKnight, senior Ben Kuznia and a stable of solid TE's.

Lee Campbell and Simoni Lawrence were hugely productive last year, and there's some good young talent fighting for the third starting spot. If Sam Maresh can return to his high school All-American form at some point this year, this will be one of the conference's most productive units.

This was the most disappoint group from the 2008 team, and their performance this year will determine whether the Gophers even get to a bowl or are playing somewhere on New Year's Day. With the influx of talent in transfers Matt Carufel and Jeff WHACHUTALKINBOUT Wills, the return of now experienced veterans AND the switch to a blocking system that plays to the strengths (both literally and figuratively) of the guys here, I'm VERY optimistic about this group.

Will they be great? No, but all I'm hoping for is for them to be effective. They were well on their way before Duane Bennett got hurt midway through the year, and the lack of depth and crappy blocking doomed the running game. Along with the big "hog mollies" up front being better, between returning starters Bennett and DeLeon Eskridge, and redshirt frosh Kevin Whaley, they should be able to piece together a serviceable running game. Key word there is "should."

We have the best corner in the conference in Big Play Traye Simmons, but after that there's a lot of unknowns. Returning starter Marcus Sherels was good at times, but got torched at others. There's been a good battle in camp for the nickel corner, but the guy I want to win that job is true freshman Michael Carter. The four star recruit from Florida did not spurn West Virginia to come here and ride the pine. He's been turning heads in practice, has more natural ability than anybody else in the group but Simmons, and the sooner he plays the better. With that kind of ability I'd throw him into the fire early and often and let his instincts and skills take over, and I think and hope he's starting by October. That would only help the corner depth and talent behind him. At safety, I tried to downplay it earlier, but losing Tremaine Brock to academic issues is a big blow. Sconnie transfer Kim Royston should be fine, but can he be the playmaker Brock was? At the other safety spot returning starter Kyle Theret was solid against the run, but suspect in coverage. That has to improve.

Always overlooked and underappreciated, yet always important, the Gophers special teams has to be better. We need consistent kicking from 40 yards in, better punting, and better kick and punt coverage as a whole. I'm not so worried about the talent returning kicks and punts, but everything else needs to be better.

Many of the same questions facing this year's group were there last year, and for the most part, the surpised all of us. Like the entire defense, the line sputtered down the stretch, but overall they were still much better than anticipated. A major, major, MAJOR part of that was defensive end Willie VanDeSteeg, whose graduation was the biggest loss from last year's team. He led the team in sacks with 10.5, and helped the Gophs to lead the conference with 34 in 2008. Senior Cedrick McKinley is first in line to fill his shoes, but it's going take a group effort to try and repeat last year's surprise performance. There's a LOT of questions facing this group, and hopefully they give us some good answers starting against Syracuse.

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