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The big 2014 Minnesota football preview: Gophers should improve for third straight year

Under fourth-year coach Jerry Kill, Minnesota might be able to pull off something it hasn't achieved in quite some time: a third straight forward step. Kill's 2014 squad is low on star power but has both experience and depth on its side.

SB Nation 2014 College Football Countdown

Confused? Check out the advanced-stats glossary here.

1. Three is a streak

There are fates worse than Glen Mason Territory.

Every season throughout the course of 125+ previews, I bring up the concept of Glen Mason Territory a few times. I did so in my first Minnesota preview in 2011, and Gopher fans are probably tired of the concept by now. A quick refresher:

Back in my blogger infancy, I coined a term called Glen Mason Territory to describe when a coach achieves at a higher-than-normal level at a given school (probably a second-tier BCS program that hadn't won in a while before he showed up) but cannot ever break through to the next level; he keeps making bowl games and winning, say, 6-8 games a year, but fans begin to get impatient. The crazies begin to start yelling things like "settling for mediocrity!" on talk radio and message boards, season ticket sales begin to fade, and even the rational fans in the base (the SB Nation readers, naturally) begin to start wondering if a change is needed.

Before Mason came to town in 1997, Minnesota had been to just three bowls in 36 years. The Gophers had won more than six games in a season just once in 20 years. One of the nation's mid-century powers under Bernie Bierman and Murray Warmath, Minnesota had gone the way of the dodo when it comes to playing elite football. And to be sure, under Mason the Gophers were almost never elite. But they went to seven bowls in eight years, finished in the AP top 20 twice, and won 10 games in 2003. They went just 20-17 in his final three seasons, and there wasn't much energy about the program by 2006, but after they fired following an Insight Bowl collapse against Texas Tech, they averaged just four wins per year for the next five seasons.

I've taken the GMT concept for a spin quite a few times through the years, but I was reminded of it last fall as Jerry Kill was leading the Gophers to their first eight-win season in a decade. They were far from great, but they were competitive and tough, and they beat the teams they were supposed to beat. It had been a while since that happened.

It had also been a while since the Gophers took strong steps forward for two consecutive years. They went from 4-7 to 8-5 to 10-3 from 2001-03, and from 3-9 to 5-6 to 8-4 in 1997-99, but most of the last decade had been marred by random collapses (three seasons of three or fewer wins) and the sweet solace of .500 or near-.500 seasons (six seasons of six or seven wins).

In Kill's second season, Minnesota went from bad to mediocre.

In his third, the Gophers went from mediocre to solid.

And with exciting youth and a seasoned line on offense, along with one of the conference's better pass rushers and secondaries on defense, they could be poised for a third straight year of measurable improvement. What does that mean for the win-loss record? Not sure. But for the first time since Mason was dumped in 2006, Minnesota should have a team that surpasses the level of that 2006 squad. It's been a long road back to Glen Mason Territory, but the Gophers appear to be just about there.

2013 Schedule & Results

Record: 8-5 | Adj. Record: 3-10 | Final F/+ Rk: 55
Date Opponent Opp. F/+ Rk Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L 5-gm Adj. Avg.
29-Aug UNLV 96 51-23 W 27.9 - 24.5 W
7-Sep at New Mexico State 122 44-21 W 30.8 - 23.9 W
14-Sep Western Illinois N/A 29-12 W 24.1 - 29.6 L
21-Sep San Jose State 74 43-24 W 22.9 - 38.3 L
28-Sep Iowa 29 7-23 L 17.3 - 34.2 L -5.5
5-Oct at Michigan 37 13-42 L 26.4 - 43.1 L -9.5
19-Oct at Northwestern 59 20-17 W 20.0 - 22.2 L -11.3
26-Oct Nebraska 39 34-23 W 41.2 - 25.2 W -7.0
2-Nov at Indiana 56 42-39 W 27.4 - 28.0 L -4.0
9-Nov Penn State 61 24-10 W 27.6 - 27.7 L -0.7
23-Nov Wisconsin 19 7-20 L 16.2 - 16.7 L 2.5
30-Nov at Michigan State 6 3-14 L 23.0 - 31.8 L 1.2
27-Dec vs. Syracuse 75 17-21 L 24.5 - 34.9 L -4.1
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk Spec. Tms. Rk
F/+ -3.2% 73 +3.3% 47 +2.8% 13
Points Per Game 25.7 85 22.2 25
Adj. Points Per Game 25.3 93 29.2 77

2. Knowing your place on the totem pole

Adj. Points tend to be a good tool for pointing out in-season trends, times of the year in which a team improved or regressed. But for Minnesota, all Adj. Points do is tell you that the plot changed for the Gophers every few weeks.

Adj. Points Per Game (first 3 games): Minnesota 27.6, Opponent 26.0 (plus-1.6)
Adj. Points Per Game (next 3 games): Opponent 38.5, Minnesota 22.2 (minus-16.3)
Adj. Points Per Game (next 4 games): Minnesota 29.1, Opponent 25.8 (plus-3.3)
Adj. Points Per Game (last 3 games): Opponent 27.8, Minnesota 21.2 (minus-6.6)

Minnesota was average, then terrible, then above average, then below average. The slump more or less coincided with Jerry Kill's pre-game seizure in Ann Arbor on October 5 and corresponding leave of absence. Minnesota played well as he prepared to return to coaching and took down both Indiana and Penn State after his return, but the Gophers' offense vanished as Thanksgiving approached, and any hopes of a dark horse division title run (which would have required them to beat Michigan State) met an almost scoreless demise.

The season was full of ups and downs, but if you sort Minnesota games by the quality of the opponent, things begin to make a lot of sense.

Minnesota vs. Top Quartile: 0-3 (average score: Opponent 19.0, UM 5.7)
Minnesota vs. Second Quartile: 4-1 (average score: UM 26.6, Opponent 26.2)
Minnesota vs. Third Quartile: 1-1 (average score: UM 30.0, Opponent 22.5)
Minnesota vs. Bottom Quartile/FCS: 3-0 (average score: UM 41.3, Opponent 18.7)

The Gophers lost games to teams in the top quarter of FBS by an average of 13.3 points, basically broke even with teams in the next quarter, played about a touchdown better than teams in the third quarter (but did still figure out a way to lose late to Syracuse), and easily handled teams in the bottom quarter.

They punched their weight with minimal variance. It doesn't usually work out that clean, and if the Gophers want to figure out how to improve their lot in life, scoring against good teams is something they might want to figure out.

Offense

FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.08 98 IsoPPP+ 94.6 91
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 40.9% 79 Succ. Rt. + 96.9 71
FIELD POSITION Def. Avg. FP 28.5 43 Def. FP+ 100.4 55
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 4.2 71 Redzone S&P+ 102.2 51
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 17.1 ACTUAL 16 -1.1
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 107 78 72 97
RUSHING 38 73 71 38
PASSING 117 67 75 115
Standard Downs 89 82 102
Passing Downs 58 53 87
Q1 Rk 108 1st Down Rk 104
Q2 Rk 59 2nd Down Rk 76
Q3 Rk 81 3rd Down Rk 38
Q4 Rk 49

3. Knowing your identity

Since Adam Weber left in 2010, the quarterback position has been in a constant state of flux for Minnesota. In 2011, Marqueis Gray threw 213 passes and fended off a challenge from interesting freshman Max Shortell (54 passes). In 2012, another interesting freshman, Philip Nelson, threw 154 passes while Shortell threw 116 and Gray threw 57. Shortell transferred in the offseason.

In 2013, it was Nelson's turn to be usurped. He threw 186 passes to freshman Mitch Leidner's 78. But after dreadful performances by Nelson against Wisconsin and Michigan State (13-for-41, 160 yards, two interceptions), Leidner did most of the work in the bowl game and went 11-for-22 for 205 yards. Recognizing the writing on the wall, Nelson transferred to Rutgers, from which he was recently dismissed after an ugly fight.

So now, for the third straight year, Minnesota has a sophomore quarterback with decent experience. There are a couple of interesting three-star freshmen who could fill the role of usurper, but the job is Leidner's for now. He was a little more efficient than Nelson, and while he wasn't particularly explosive on the ground, he was efficient enough to be a threat. He takes a disturbing amount of sacks, but that could improve.

With Leidner in command, Minnesota's identity is clear: run, then run some more. David Cobb and Rodrick Williams, Jr., averaged almost 23 carries per game last season, and quarterbacks threw in another 13 or so. Cobb is a reasonably efficient back with strong explosiveness, and the 235-pound Williams is, despite his stature, a bit less efficient and more explosive. Minnesota can punish you on the ground, and considering the addition of two more potential studs to the rotation -- blue-chip freshman Jeff Jones and highly touted redshirt freshman (and, at 5'9, 190, a change of pace) Berkley Edwards -- one has to figure Minnesota will be keeping the ball on the ground as much as almost any major-conference team this side of Georgia Tech.

Quarterback

Note: players in bold below are 2014 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.

Player Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Comp Att Yards TD INT Comp
Rate
Sacks Sack Rate Yards/
Att.
Philip Nelson 94 186 1306 9 6 50.5% 14 7.0% 6.0
Mitch Leidner 6'4, 233 So. 2 stars (5.4) 43 78 619 3 1 55.1% 13 14.3% 6.0
Chris Streveler 6'2, 209 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5)
Dimonic Roden-McKinzy 6'0, 213 Fr. 3 stars (5.6)

Running Back

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Rushes Yards TD Yards/
Carry
Hlt Yds/
Carry
Opp.
Rate
David Cobb RB 5'11, 225 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 237 1202 7 5.1 5.7 34.2%
Mitch Leidner QB 6'4, 233 So. 2 stars (5.4) 89 477 7 5.4 3.7 49.4%
Philip Nelson QB 79 464 6 5.9 4.7 49.4%
Rodrick Williams, Jr. RB 5'11, 235 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 60 332 3 5.5 6.7 31.7%
Donnell Kirkwood RB 5'10, 223 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 52 120 0 2.3 1.7 26.9%
Donovahn Jones WR-X 6'3, 190 So. 3 stars (5.5) 16 73 0 4.6 3.6 56.3%
Berkley Edwards RB 5'9, 190 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7)
Jeff Jones RB 6'0, 198 Fr. 4 stars (6.0)

Receiving Corps

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Targets Catches Yards Catch Rate Target
Rate
%SD Yds/
Target
NEY Real Yds/
Target
RYPR
Derrick Engel WR-X 44 25 401 56.8% 17.3% 41.5% 9.1 78 9.9 52.3
Maxx Williams TE 6'4, 254 So. 3 stars (5.5) 40 25 417 62.5% 15.7% 47.4% 10.4 110 10.4 54.4
Drew Wolitarsky WR-X 6'3, 208 So. 3 stars (5.6) 37 15 259 40.5% 14.6% 41.7% 7.0 23 6.0 33.8
Donovahn Jones WR-X 6'3, 190 So. 3 stars (5.5) 34 10 157 29.4% 13.4% 29.4% 4.6 -37 3.9 20.5
Isaac Fruechte WR-Z 6'3, 204 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 29 13 154 44.8% 11.4% 31.0% 5.3 -38 4.9 20.1
David Cobb RB 5'11, 225 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 20 17 174 85.0% 7.9% 20.0% 8.7 -7 6.5 22.7
KJ Maye WR-Z 5'10, 197 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 14 7 70 50.0% 5.5% 7.7% 5.0 -27 2.9 9.1
Mike Henry FB 12 8 86 66.7% 4.7% 66.7% 7.2 -9 7.1 11.2
Drew Goodger TE 6'5, 265 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 11 7 111 63.6% 4.3% 80.0% 10.1 26 8.9 14.5
Logan Hutton WR-H 6'1, 181 Sr. 2 stars (5.2) 6 3 31 50.0% 2.4% 33.3% 5.2 -11 5.3 4.0
Lincoln Plsek TE 6'4, 265 Jr. 3 stars (5.5)
Eric Carter WR 5'11, 185 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7)
Nate Wozniak TE 6'10, 258 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6)
Isaiah Gentry WR 6'4, 185 Fr. 3 stars (5.7)
Gaelin Elmore TE 6'6, 246 Fr. 3 stars (5.7)
Melvin Holland, Jr. WR 6'3, 190 Fr. 3 stars (5.5)
Conner Krizancic WR 6'2, 190 Fr. 3 stars (5.5)
Brandon Lingen TE 6'5, 245 Fr. 3 stars (5.5)

4. Sophomores, ahoy

If or when Leidner does throw, he's got a pretty interesting arsenal surrounding him. First of all, there is all sorts of youth involved. Sophomores Maxx Williams, Drew Wolitarsky, and former quarterback Donovahn Jones will, in theory, develop quite a rapport with Leidner in the coming seasons. Williams averaged 10.4 yards per target at 254 pounds, which is rare, and Wolitarsky was just about the best thing Minnesota had going in the final two games against Michigan State (three catches for 56 yards) and Syracuse (four for 94).

Minnesota loaded up on wideouts in the 2014 recruiting class, and while that further assures a young set of receivers in 2014, this group is going to be together for quite a while.

(And yes, redshirt freshman tight end Nate Wozniak is listed at 6'10. This could be fun.)

Offensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs
LY/carry
Pass.
Downs
LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Team 101.7 2.93 3.21 38.9% 65.4% 19.1% 61.5 11.2% 8.7%
Rank 59 70 70 70 78 66 121 125 91
Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Career Starts Honors/Notes
Ed Olson LT 34
Zac Epping LG 6'2, 321 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 34
Josh Campion RT 6'5, 326 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 26
Caleb Bak RG 6'3, 302 Sr. NR 23
Tommy Olson C 6'4, 301 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 15
Jon Christenson C 6'4, 306 Jr. NR 14
Marek Lenkiewicz LT 6'5, 289 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 8
Foster Bush RG 6'5, 303 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 4
Ben Lauer LT 6'6, 302 So. 2 stars (5.2) 4
Joe Bjorklund LG 6'5, 288 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0
Luke McAvoy RG 6'5, 285 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0
Isaac Hayes RG 6'2, 304 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0
Jonah Pirsig RT 6'9, 308 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0
Alex Mayes LT 6'5, 285 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6)
Chad Fahning RT 6'6, 270 RSFr. 2 stars (5.4)
Connor Mayes OL 6'5, 305 Fr. 3 stars (5.6)

5. All the experience you could want

Despite a decent amount of shuffling -- Minnesota had a new starting lineup every few games, four in all -- the Gophers line was something approaching decent in 2013. They were middle-of-the-road in most run-blocking categories, and with Nelson behind center they were at least okay at protecting the passer. (Once Leidner was the quarterback, the sacks added up exponentially.)

As with Indiana's offensive line, experience could solve quite a few issues. Thanks to injuries, Minnesota finished the season with seven players having amassed at least eight career starts, and seven return (128 career starts), including three-year starting guard Zac Epping. This line is experienced and hefty, and while it won't be elite, it should do well enough blocking for so many talented running backs.

Defense

FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.12 51 IsoPPP+ 99.2 63
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 42.9% 69 Succ. Rt. + 97.9 64
FIELD POSITION Off. Avg. FP 29.6 80 Off. FP+ 95.5 101
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 3.7 16 Redzone S&P+ 116.2 20
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 22.1 ACTUAL 19.0 -3.1
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 43 65 64 47
RUSHING 55 79 76 56
PASSING 35 47 45 36
Standard Downs 76 68 86
Passing Downs 53 62 44
Q1 Rk 106 1st Down Rk 82
Q2 Rk 31 2nd Down Rk 47
Q3 Rk 83 3rd Down Rk 62
Q4 Rk 55

Defensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs
LY/carry
Pass.
Downs
LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Team 100.1 2.86 3.00 38.9% 56.0% 24.4% 82 3.1% 5.9%
Rank 58 49 30 60 10 11 98 105 86
Name Pos Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Ra'Shede Hageman NT 13 32.0 4.5% 13.0 2.0 1 8 0 0
Theiren Cockran DE 6'6, 238 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 13 24.0 3.4% 10.0 7.5 0 2 4 0
Roland Johnson DT 13 20.5 2.9% 5.5 0.0 0 0 0 0
Alex Keith DE 6'3, 237 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 12 19.0 2.7% 5.0 2.0 0 1 0 0
Cameron Botticelli DT 6'5, 290 Sr. 2 stars (5.3) 13 18.0 2.5% 5.5 1.0 0 1 0 0
Michael Amaefula DE 6'2, 244 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 13 15.5 2.2% 1.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Scott Ekpe NT 6'4, 281 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 13 13.5 1.9% 1.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Hank Ekpe DE 6'5, 251 So. 3 stars (5.5) 13 9.5 1.3% 1.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Ben Perry DL 6'5, 253 Sr. 2 stars (5.3) 9 5.5 0.8% 1.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Yoshoub Timms DT 6'2, 276 So. 2 stars (5.4) 5 1.5 0.2% 1.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Harold Legania DT 6'4, 308 Sr. 3 stars (5.5)
Jordan Hinojosa DT 6'3, 272 Jr. 3 stars (5.5)
Demaris Peppers DT 6'3, 270 So. 3 stars (5.5)
Owen Salzwedel DE 6'6, 240 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6)
Julien Kafo DE 6'4, 255 Fr. 3 stars (5.5)
Steven Richardson DT 5'11, 285 Fr. 3 stars (5.5)
Andrew Stelter DE 6'4, 264 Fr. 3 stars (5.5)

6. Finding help for Cockran

While the offense left something to be desired against better defenses, the Minnesota defense was a legitimate top-50 unit. The strengths were minimal -- the Gophers were great at stopping drives short of the goal line and excellent in both short-yardage situations and in getting defenders into the backfield against the run. The real strength, though, was that the weaknesses were minimal. The Minnesota pass rush basically featured one guy, and the defense was prone to slow starts (106th in the first quarter), but this was mostly a solid, sound unit that punished mistakes.

The defense's overall level of experience in 2014 is pretty solid: Minnesota returns six starters and almost all of 2013's second string, and there are juniors and seniors scattered throughout the two-deep. But perhaps last year's biggest strength -- defensive tackle -- could be a weakness. Minnesota must replace not only Ra'Shede Hageman (if you could name one Minnesota player last year, it was probably him), but also Roland Johnson. The two combined for 18.5 tackles for loss, and while senior Cameron Botticelli did finish with about the same playing time as Johnson, the unit has been thinned out quite a bit. There will be pressure on players like Botticelli, Scott Ekpe, and a host of newcomers to the rotation.

If opponents can run a little better on Minnesota, it will be up to the pass defense to pick up the slack. The secondary should be excellent, but the pass rush was basically limited to Theiren Cockran, whose 7.5 sacks were higher than the rest of the line combined (5.0). He was the only Gopher with more than 2.0 sacks last year, and he'll need some help.

Linebackers

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Damien Wilson MLB 6'2, 254 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 13 62.5 8.8% 5.5 1.0 0 0 0 0
Aaron Hill SLB 13 62.0 8.7% 5.0 1.5 2 1 2 2
James Manuel WLB 13 44.0 6.2% 3.5 2.0 1 4 1 0
De'Vondre Campbell WLB 6'5, 225 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 13 34.0 4.8% 3.0 0.0 0 1 1 0
Jephte Matilus LB 6'1, 238 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 13 7.5 1.1% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Nick Rallis SLB 5'11, 227 So. 3 stars (5.5) 10 4.5 0.6% 0.5 0.0 0 0 0 0
Jack Lynn SLB 6'3, 234 So. 3 stars (5.5) 3 3.0 0.4% 1.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Dominic Schultz LB 6'1, 236 Jr. NR 12 2.0 0.3% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
De'Niro Laster SLB 6'4, 230 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7)
Ray Dixon WLB 6'3, 205 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6)
Chris Wipson MLB 6'2, 210 RSFr. 2 stars (5.4)
Cody Pook LB 6'2, 234 Jr. 3 stars (5.5)

7. Beware injuries

One thing that bears mentioning: once the season began, Minnesota got pretty lucky with injuries. Of the 21 players who averaged at least one tackle per game, only three missed even one game, one (linebacker Jack Lynn) was a reserve, and only one began the season as a starter (Briean Boddy-Calhoun was lost for the year in the second game). That's pretty fortunate as a whole. The front seven thinned out a bit, so any injuries up front could force defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys to dip much further into the depth chart than he had to last year.

Secondary

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Cedric Thompson S 5'10, 211 Sr. 2 stars (5.2) 13 65.5 9.2% 2 0 1 0 1 0
Antonio Johnson S 6'0, 207 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 13 57.0 8.0% 1 0.5 1 3 1 0
Brock Vereen CB 13 50.0 7.0% 2.5 0 1 6 1 0
Eric Murray CB 6'0, 194 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 13 48.0 6.7% 1 0 0 10 0 0
Damarius Travis S 6'2, 208 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 13 22.0 3.1% 0 0 0 4 0 0
Martez Shabazz CB 13 15.5 2.2% 2.5 0.5 0 5 0 0
Derrick Wells CB 6'0, 206 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 10 15.0 2.1% 1 0 1 3 0 0
Jeremy Baltazar DB 13 13.5 1.9% 0 0 1 0 0 0
Grayson Levine S 5'11, 202 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 13 12.0 1.7% 0 0 0 1 0 0
Marcus Jones CB 5'8, 166 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 13 8.5 1.2% 0.5 0 0 0 0 0
Briean Boddy-Calhoun CB 5'11, 186 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 2 4.5 0.6% 0 0 1 0 0 0
Jalen Myrick CB 5'10, 200 So. 2 stars (5.3) 11 3.5 0.5% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Steven Montgomery CB 5'10, 210 Jr. 3 stars (5.6)
Daletavious McGhee S 6'1, 195 RSFr. 2 stars (5.3)
Craig James CB 5'11, 170 Fr. 3 stars (5.5)

8. With a pass rush, the secondary will thrive

The secondary was not without attrition; Brock Vereen was a fourth-round pick by the Chicago Bears last weekend, and corner Martezz Shabazz was an inordinately active reserve, logging 2.5 tackles for loss and five break-ups while making just 15.5 tackles overall. With them go a good portion of Minnesota's bigger plays from last year.

But it's hard to worry too much about this unit. Eric Murray is another active athlete at cornerback, Boddy-Calhoun is back, and last year's three primary safeties are all back. Minnesota ranked 47th in Passing S&P+ despite a subpar pass rush; with a better rush, the Gophers could move into the Passing S&P+ top 40.

Special Teams

Punter Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Punts Avg TB FC I20 FC/I20
Ratio
Peter Mortell 6'2, 195 Jr. 62 43.3 6 12 21 53.2%
Kicker Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Kickoffs Avg TB OOB TB%
Chris Hawthorne 68 62.3 22 0 32.4%
Place-Kicker Ht, Wt 2014
Year
PAT FG
(0-39)
Pct FG
(40+)
Pct
Chris Hawthorne 36-39 9-10 90.0% 5-8 62.5%
Returner Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Returns Avg. TD
Marcus Jones KR 5'8, 166 Sr. 25 24.9 1
Antonio Johnson KR 6'0, 207 Jr. 5 28.6 0
Marcus Jones PR 5'8, 166 Sr. 11 10.5 1
Derrick Engel PR 6 4.8 0
Category Rk
Special Teams F/+ 13
Field Goal Efficiency 45
Punt Return Efficiency 25
Kick Return Efficiency 16
Punt Efficiency 69
Kickoff Efficiency 40
Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency 23

9. Minimal special teams worries

Minnesota's special teams unit has been quite solid in odd-numbered years of late -- 27th in Special Teams F/+ in 2009, 35th in 2011, and 13th in 2013. This isn't an odd year, and special teams are notoriously fickle from year to year, but with the return of a solid punter in Peter Mortell and a duo of excellent return men (Marcus Jones, Antonio Johnson), Minnesota should be fine here even if there's a bit of regression.

2014 Schedule & Projection Factors

2014 Schedule
Date Opponent Proj. Rk
28-Aug Eastern Illinois NR
6-Sep Middle Tennessee 98
13-Sep at TCU 31
20-Sep San Jose State 88
27-Sep at Michigan 32
11-Oct Northwestern 50
18-Oct Purdue 108
25-Oct at Illinois 63
8-Nov Iowa 34
15-Nov Ohio State 4
22-Nov at Nebraska 40
29-Nov at Wisconsin 15
Five-Year F/+ Rk -7.0% (80)
Two-Year Recruiting Rk 55
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin* 3 / 5.0
TO Luck/Game -0.8
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 14 (8, 6)

10. All about the second quartile

Last year, Minnesota basically beat the teams it was supposed to be and lost to the others. The Gophers were dominated by top-tier teams and pretty easily handled those in the bottom half of FBS.

In 2014, their success could be determined by that second quartile. Home games against Iowa and Northwestern and trips to TCU, Michigan, Nebraska and Illinois will determine whether Minnesota is scraping by near the Mendoza Line of bowl eligibility or threatening to approach double-digit wins.

This should be a pretty good team. The star power is minimal with the loss of Hageman and Vereen, but the offense is deep in all the right places (running back, offensive line), the secondary is well-stocked, and the Gophers might -- might -- actually have a sophomore quarterback who excels for once.

It takes a few ifs to make Minnesota a top-30 team, but top 40? Top 45? That's not that much of a stretch.

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