2011 Record: (3-9, 2-6 in Big Ten)
Head Coach: Jerry Kill (3-9 at Minnesota, 130-82 All-Time)
Last Bowl Game: 2009 Insight Bowl (lost to Iowa St 14-13)
Must Win: 8/30 at UNLV, 9/8 vs New Hampshire, 9/15 vs WMU
Swing Games: 9/22 vs Syracuse, 10/13 vs Northwestern, 11/10 at Illinois
Stat to Cheer: hled opponents to 81.13% scoring conversion rate inside red zone (5th in Big Ten)
Stat to Fear: 9 takeaways in 2012 (last in FBS)
Phil Steele's Returning Starters: (Offense: 6; Defense: 6; Specialists: 2)
Key Defensive Returnees: LB Mike Rallis (83 tackles), LB Keanon Cooper (77 tackles), CB Troy Stoudermire (24 tackles, 2 INTs)
Key Offensive Returnee: QB Marqueis Gray (8 passing TD, 8 INT, 6 rushing TD, 966 yds rushing)
Inside Scoop with Fringe Bowl Team Blog:
CFBZ: What are the biggest reasons to be optimistic about the Golden Gophers in 2012?
Fringe Bowl Team: Continuity among the coaching staff for the first time in years is the biggest source of optimism, especially when you look at the neighboring coaching staffs at Iowa and Wisconsin, for a change. This is the first season since 2006 where Minnesota has not needed to replace a coordinator in the off-season. Kill's staff is incredibly loyal to their head coach, as most have been working for him over a decade.That familiarity with one another and between the players should go a long way to building upon where the Gophers left off last season.
CFBZ: Minnesota had the lowest total yardage output of any offense in the Big Ten last year. The QB, Marqueis Gray, was also the leading rusher. Who are some guys that are expected to step up at RB?
Fringe Bowl Team: JUCO transfer James Gillum is the guy to keep an eye on. Kill has a way of picking up good RBs from JUCOs: Muhammad Abdulqaadir (Coffeyville CC, class of 2002) and Brandon Jacobs (also from Coffeyville, class of 2004) had huge first seasons at Southern Illinois. You could throw in NIU's Jasmin Hopkins (Fort Scott CC, class of 2010) into that mix as well, even though Hopkins sat behind Chad Spann during Kill's last season.
The staff has repeatedly stated during the off-season that Gillum is "their type of back" and make no qualms suggesting he could be a "program changing" or "difference making" running back. He's a tough, grinder of a back the staff feels can carry a 22-25 per game load.
Other guys to keep an eye on, if they can stay healthy, are Donnell Kirkwood and David Cobb. Kirkwood and Cobb are power backs compared to the all-purpose Gillum. The wildcard is Devon Wright, the fastest of the group but the one built most like a receiver; the coaching staff has indicated they may use him in a variety of ways versus strictly out of the backfield.
In the end, however, the Gophers' leading rusher may still be Gray.
CFBZ: What is the one game that Minnesota fans have circled on their schedule as the one they want to win the most?
Fringe Bowl Team: At Iowa on September 29th. A third straight victory over the Hawkeyes and keeping Floyd of Rosedale in Minneapolis would provide huge bragging rights for Minnesota fans.
CFBZ: What is your gut feeling on the final record for the 2012 season and what makes the season successful in your eyes? Will Minnesota in fact be a "fringe bowl team" this year?
Fringe Bowl Team: I'm between 4 and 6 wins as the final win total for this season, with 5 wins floating around the national consensus. A return to fringe bowl team status would make 2012 a success and if Minnesota can sweep their non-conference schedule (which is doable on paper), a bowl appearance becomes increasingly more likely. Without a bowl berth, success is a moving target for this team as progress is the name of the game. Just how much progress do they need to make? I'd say more competitive games against the rest of the Big Ten, another trophy game win or an upset over a ranked team would suffice.
Last year, Minnesota lost to New Mexico State and North Dakota State but beat Iowa and Illinois. To say it was an up and down year for Jerry Kill would be an understatement. If Kill's tenure at Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois are to be taken into account then this will be another rebuilding year. Of course, Kill is also in the Big Ten now so climbing the ladder is going to take a bit longer.
On offense, Minnesota must replace it's leading receiver Da'Jon McKnight (he had 51 receptions, which was 35 more than the next Gopher) and their leading rusher at the running back position Duane Bennett (QB Gray was actually their leading rusher by over 300 yards). Minnesota's offensive line doesn't have much experience but that falls in line with most of the Big Ten. The offense will be relying on newcomers and players without a lot of experience in many areas so Marqueis Gray will have to step up in his second full year at QB. He completed just 50% of his passes last year and threw as many interceptions (8) as he did TDs but he was a big time threat to take off as he had four 100 yard rushing games. Gray must be a more complete and consistent quarterback this season.
On the defensive side, the Gophers will be more experienced than the offense as they should start upperclassmen at nine of eleven positions. One thing they will have to overcome is the loss of one of their leading tacklers, Gary Tinsley, who tragically died of an enlarged heart just a couple of months ago. One positive bit of news for the Gophers is that Troy Stoudermire was granted an extra year of eligibility and he's the closest thing they have to a difference maker in the back four. Minnesota was playing much better defense last year as they closed out the season and defense is going to be what makes or breaks the Gophers this year. Their win total will depend on how much of a step forward the defense takes.
2012 Prediction: 4-8
Previous 2012 Previews:
Big 12: Kansas
Big East: Temple