Why Minnesota might be this year’s Iowa — or, conversely, this year’s Illinois
The Big Ten West’s hippest bandwagon still has plenty of room up front, for whatever that’s worth. Minnesota football season tickets are reportedly down 18 percent from 2015, and university officials expect a crowd of 44,000-ish range for Thursday night’s opener against Oregon State — a 10,000-seat dip from the turnout of 54,147 at last fall’s kickoff versus TCU.
So whatever Kirk Herbstreit is selling, the kids up north aren’t exactly buying. Yet.
“I was surprised,” Darrell Thompson, the Golden Gophers’ all-time leading rusher and current radio analyst, said of the popular ESPN analyst picking his alma mater to win the Big Ten’s wackiest division. “But I also think he’s looking at the schedule and momentum, and he’s a studious guy. He knows.
“And I think it’s a little bit of an outlier of a pick, but I don’t think it’s a crazy pick. When you look at the schedule and the opportunity and the way the team has progressed, things have gotten better every year. It could be an 8-, 9-, 10-win season.”
It could. Then again, these are the Gophers, the Big Ten’s box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.
Although if someone is going to be “this year’s Iowa” — storm out of the middle of the pack and into the Top 25 with a no-nonsense defense, a no-nonsense coach and little or no national respect — Team Goldy makes as much (or as little) sense as anybody else in the pool, given the ingredients on the table.
Like Iowa in 2015, the Gophs feature a mobile quarterback and a user-friendly schedule with no Buckeyes, Wolverines or Spartans to contend with. There are winnable games in September, with a chance to build momentum with an upset or two in October.
After that, who knows?
“But at the end of the day, you’ve got to win those close games as opposed to losing them,” said Thompson, whose Gophers haven’t beaten a Power 5 non-conference opponent at home since Syracuse in 2012 (17-10). “I’m a big believer in confidence and momentum, and (Iowa) had it last year … and so then you’ve got momentum and the confidence that everybody believes, the ship just moves, keeps on trucking until it runs into the next big ship.”
Among the ships with the big computers, though, a consensus becomes a little harder to peg. Kenneth Massey’s one-stop rankings composite page pegs the Gophers almost perfectly in the middle of — well, everybody, No. 63 out of 128 FBS schools. But the swings among individual computer models are all over the place, from Dave Congrove’s rankings at CollegeFootballPoll.com (95th) to James England’s NCAA Football Ratings page (34th).
“Believe me, (the system) doesn’t hate or love any team,” Congrove explained in an email to Landof10.com. “But I guess you feel this way because it gave them a No. 95 ranking. Being a math-based formula, it did so on a combination of factors — relatively weak schedule (No. 69), 55 percent returning starters and 60 percent returning lettermen; and a minor deduction for the head coaching change (though the change was made last year in midseason).”
England’s system, conversely, doesn’t particularly care that signal-caller Mitch Leidner has accounted for 51 touchdowns over the last three seasons or that he can plant off his left foot again. Or that the Gophers (6-7 last fall) return 13 starters and 39 lettermen to the party. It’s not arbitrary so much as binary.
“(The range of) their ceiling and their floor is going to be pretty wide,” England said. “More wide than most people’s.”
Because crossover games can do funny things to the West standings. The Gophers this year landed the anti-Wisconsin dance card, with no Ohio State, Michigan or Michigan State. In 2015, Iowa drew Indiana (which was barely a bowl team at 6-7) and Maryland (which wasn’t); Minnesota this fall trades the Buckeyes and Wolverines for Penn State on the road (tough), Maryland on the road (tough, but doable) and Rutgers at home (not as tough, imminently doable).
Of the Gophers’ first nine tests, only three are against squads that reached the postseason in 2015 — a home date with Colorado State (7-6 in 2015) on Sept. 24; the aforementioned visit to Happy Valley on Oct. 1 and a visit from the Hawkeyes the weekend after that.
“They’re all fairly evenly matched,” Thompson said. “You don’t have to have everything (going), where everything’s got to be working perfectly to beat Ohio State. With Michigan, we lost on the last play of the game (29-26 last fall). But it doesn’t really matter, because you lost. Close is only good in horseshoes and hand grenades.”
Or in Iowa City. Among games decided by six points or fewer, the Hawkeyes picked up as many victories (four) in 2015 as they had in those “close” games over the previous two seasons combined (4-4). Over the past two seasons, the Gophers have played in nine games decided by six points or fewer, with results as mixed (5-4) as Iowa’s were in 2013-’14.
Luck doesn’t play favorites, unless you make your own. And while we’re on the subject, often the difference between a minor bowl and a division title is flipping the turnover margin. In 2014, the Hawkeyes won seven games with a plus/minus of minus-6. Last fall, with Desmond King leading the pick parade, Iowa improved to a plus-11 and finished the regular season 12-0. The Gophers won eight games in ’14 with a plus-10 ratio but slipped to minus-4 last fall, a slide that was reflected in the overall record, too.
“Minnesota has been a historically tough team to peg,” Congrove continued. “It seems the Gophers come up short when they’re supposed to do well (I picked them to go 9-3 last year and 10-2 in 2014) and outperform expectations when they’re projected to be weak.”
Sometimes it’s not the lightning. It’s the bottle.
You can reach Sean Keeler via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @seankeeler