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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|
|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.
|FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|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|
|Q1 Rk||108||1st Down Rk||104|
|Q2 Rk||59||2nd Down Rk||76|
|Q3 Rk||81||3rd Down Rk||38|
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.
Note: players in bold below are 2014 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|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)|
|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%|
|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)|
|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|
|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.)
|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.
|FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|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|
|Q1 Rk||106||1st Down Rk||82|
|Q2 Rk||31||2nd Down Rk||47|
|Q3 Rk||83||3rd Down Rk||62|
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Theiren Cockran||DE||6'6, 238||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||13||24.0||3.4%||10.0||7.5||0||2||4||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.
|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|
|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.
|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|
|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|
|Derrick Wells||CB||6'0, 206||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||10||15.0||2.1%||1||0||1||3||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.
|Peter Mortell||6'2, 195||Jr.||62||43.3||6||12||21||53.2%|
|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|
|Special Teams F/+||13|
|Field Goal Efficiency||45|
|Punt Return Efficiency||25|
|Kick Return Efficiency||16|
|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
|20-Sep||San Jose State||88|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||-7.0% (80)|
|Two-Year Recruiting Rk||55|
|TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin*||3 / 5.0|
|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.