Best-case scenario: 4 factors that could help Minnesota enjoy a special season
The proverbial dog days of summer can be long and tedious for college football fans. But each passing day brings us closer to the launch of the 2016 season.
In the past few weeks, Land Of 10 has been offering a “Best-Case Scenario” story for the Big Ten’s presumed cluster of bowl-bound clubs.
Today’s piece focuses on Minnesota (6-7 last season), a stable program (45th in scoring defense) that’s chasing its fifth consecutive bowl appearance and second consecutive postseason victory.
Here are four factors that will matter for the Golden Gophers in 2016:
1. New head coach Tracy Claeys puts an indelible stamp on the program during the season
Without a doubt, Minnesota is better off the in the short term, continuity-wise, with the full-time hire of Claeys. He had been Jerry Kill’s No. 1 lieutenant for many years and had tangible experience running the Golden Gophers at various points — unfortunately, due to Kill’s well-chronicled battle with epilepsy.
But there’s also a downside to succeeding a coaching mentor of 20-plus seasons, especially when it’s your first head-coaching opportunity. It’s one thing to preserve the principles and philosophies first established by Kill, who has 152 career victories and was 29-29 at Minnesota. But it’s another thing to carry out new forms of discipline and punishment with players who were comfortable with the old way of doing things.
For example, it’s quite possible Claeys previously served as a buffer between the players and Kill during tense times. He might have even played the “good cop” role with the other assistants. Well, as head coach, the Kansas native must quickly adjust to a new status within the program, having final say with personnel matters and ultimately serving as the cold and heartless “bad guy” with other facets of the job.
Claeys needs to stick out in a positive way in Year 1 of his full-time tenure. He needs a tent-pole moment — a big-time upset, a surprising run at the West title, etc. — to justify his relatively stress-free hire with Minnesota. He needs to differentiate himself from the long list of interim head coaches/full-time hires that fell out of favor within two or three years.
On the plus side, citing the last five final recruiting rankings from 247Sports.com spanning 2012 to 2016, Claeys has already carved out an interesting niche, relative to his popular Gophers predecessor.
2016: 8th in the Big Ten
2. QB Mitch Leidner flirts with the 3,000-yard passing mark, but not necessarily 3,500 yards
Come September, Leidner could a forgotten man in Big Ten West circles, even with last year’s 900-yard jump in passing production. Especially with Minnesota’s so-so conference schedule.
He doesn’t have the prodigious passing arm or gunslinger mentality of Illinois QB Wes Lunt.
He likely won’t win as many games as Iowa’s C.J. Beathard or Northwestern’s Clayton Thorson.
He doesn’t have the playmaking flair of Nebraska’s Tommy Armstrong Jr., who will soon become that school’s all-time leader in passing yards and passing touchdowns.
And yet, Leidner (2,701 yards passing, 20 TDs last season) has been a rock-solid influence with Minnesota over the years. For instance:
- Leidner tossed at least one touchdown pass in his final eight games, and had 15 total TDs during that span.
- He posted back-to-back outings of 300 yards passing in 2015 against Nebraska and Michigan.
- In the December bowl win over Central Michigan, Leidner breezily completed 24 of 30 passes for 223 yards and two scores, including one rushing.
As such, Gopher fans should be excited about Leidner’s final push for 3,000 yards. The upside is certainly there. He just doesn’t need to force the issue, unlike the aforementioned Lunt, who could be playing from behind in the majority of conference outings.
3. Tailback Shannon Brooks brings bankable balance to the Gophers offense
The hard-nosed and ultra-quick Brooks has a viable shot at eclipsing his freshman-year numbers (709 rushing yards, 7 TDs) by roughly 60 percent. He only registered 119 carries last year – just 12 more than the non-running QB Leidner – and averaged 6.0 yards per rush.
The Georgia native also had a strong finishing kick to last season, averaging 175 rushing yards and two TDs against Purdue and Illinois – Minnesota’s two victories in Big Ten play.
Among the league’s returning tailbacks, Brooks stands as the only Big Ten rusher to post a seasonal yards-per-carry of 6.0 or higher. When collecting 14 or more carries last season, Brooks averaged 125.2 rushing yards and 1.5 TDs per game.
Put it all together, and it’s reasonable to presume at least 17-18 carries for Brooks this fall on average, or something north of 230 for a 13-game season that would include another bowl trip. That would put Brooks in good shape for 1,200-plus yards and maybe double-digit scores.
4. The Gophers will likely go bowling in December, with a 2-3 road record
On paper, Minnesota’s road docket isn’t that cumbersome, with no trips to Northwestern, Ohio State, Michigan or Michigan State.
That said, the Gophers shouldn’t be viewed as prohibitive locks for any of the away outings (featuring Penn State, Nebraska, Wisconsin), including Maryland (Oct. 15) and Illinois (Oct. 29).
In fact, perhaps after three winnable non-conference tilts to open the season, Minnesota will hit that emotional peak for the Terrapins and Fighting Illini, knowing these ”swing” games could ultimately decide the Gophers’ bowl destination.
This year’s goal? With all due respect to Detroit — my beloved hometown and site of the Quick Lane Bowl — if Minnesota can crack the national top 75 in scoring offense (106th last year) and remain stingy on defense (Jack Lynn and Steven Richardson are still in the mix), the Gophers would warrant a trip to Texas (Armed Forces Bowl) or northern California (Foster Farms Bowl).
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and Fox Sports.