What everyone thinks this summer, non-obvious division...
"Miss" here is something of an understatement: Indiana and Michigan State are popular postseason snubs under new coaches, too, but neither has been to
six five straight bowls and six in seven years, as Minnesota has, and neither is expected to fall quite so spectacularly short of the mark as the Gophers, picked almost unanimously last or next-to-last in the Big Ten after a solid run in the middle class under Glen Mason:
Street & Smith's:
Lindy's: Pick: 10th
The Sporting News:
But the Gophers will have to settle for another middling bowl as Brewster infuses his schemes, attitude and will on a program that will benefit from his recruiting magic in future years.(Pick: 7th, Music City Bowl)
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Such negativity about a team that's been very consistently not terrible - Mason's Gophers were only 2-14 against ranked Big Ten teams in the last five years, even when they benefited from a conspicuously Ohio State-free schedule to win nine regular season games in 2003 (that team, Mason's best, was 0-3 against the top 25), but was equally impregnable to the bottom half of the league; that blistering zone running game was 16-6 as an in-conference favorite over the same span, walloped truly bottom-dwelling Northwestern, Illinois and Indiana by an average of 24 points and regularly beat whichever combination of Penn State, Purdue and/or Michigan State was on a down cycle in any given year. Mason was fired amid a complete absence of enthusiasm for never taking the Gophers beyond the middle of the pack, but at least those teams could be counted on to win between three and five league games and, on the strength of gaudy rushing stats and reaming tattered mid-major patsies in September and putting a scare into one of the conference contenders, guarantee a warmer destination for the Wobegone set at Christmas.
What's really interesting about the expected downturn in this fate isn't only that Tim Brewster has essentially the same set of players to guide into the Insight Bowl, but that everybody likes Brewster, and his staff. Among those who foresee the kind of doom Minnesota hasn't known in a decade, we find that Brewster's "non-stop energy and enthusiasm created a buzz around the program that had been missing" as he "reached out to the general fan base, high school coaches and recruits in a way that Mason never did," "restored the team's confidence and rebuilt a shattered psyche" and brought hope that "the program might finally elevate past mediocrity." His offensive coordinator, Mike Dunbar, is "a terrific hire...who did a GREAT job as OC at Northwestern from 2001-05," where his balanced spread led the league in total yards twice. His only effort at Cal was the highest scoring in the Pac Ten last year. Which equals...significant regression?
Glen Mason had "enthusiasm," too. Once.
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In the standings, maybe, especially thanks to the upward-looking prospects at Illinois, Northwestern and even returning-starter-rich Indiana, but on the field, we've seen the first big backward step already. Minnesota was really only good at two things last year: returning kicks (first in the Big Ten in kickoff return average, second in punt returns) and hanging on to the ball (the country's best turnover margin was built on its fewest number of lost fumbles), both of them good for field positioning to offset somewhat the allowances of a chronically generous defense and diminishing returns in the running game. Steele is especially obsessive about the "turnover=turnaround" thing, on which Minnesota thrived completely - 6-0 in the regular season when coming out on the right side of the giveaways, including a 10-9 thriller over North Dakota State in a game the Gophers were outgained by 130 yards but wound up plus-two in turnovers -marking them as an every-down failure destined to reap the just karmic desserts that accompany being physically handled again by the rest of the conference; in that regard, according to another of Steele's obsessive indicators, they had the worst yardage deficit in the Big Ten, by 92 yards per league game. I.E., Minnesota already played like a last place team most of last year, especially on defense, and its record with a new quarterback in a more competitive environment, minus the fortune of a soaring takeaway margin, is likely to reflect that now.
There's one really certain way to counteract those trends, but the defense under Mason was always an albatross to the offense, usually overachieving to finish in the top two-thirds of the conference, and remains such until further notice. With the same undersized schlubs on his front four, Brewster is tinkering mainly with the angle-obsessed running game, whose quick linemen and reliance on pulling and trapping would seem to suit his background with the Broncos. Yet much as Minnesota has been defined by that system, and though it produced another 1,200-yard back last year (Amir Pinnix), Brewster and Dunbar see the writing on the wall: where the Gophers had grown accustomed to producing two 1,000-yards backs, Pinnix was aided by a top backup (Alex Daniels) with such promise he was switched to defensive end at midseason. The team was missing not just its Laurence Maroney with the ball but its Greg Eslinger and Mark Setterstrom up front, too, and it wasn't until Bryan Cupito's passing success during a 3-0, bowl-facilitating November that the offense showed any sign of life. The move to the spread is banking on the same spark with a new quarterback bringing mechanics, technique and smarts rather than continuing to send Pinnix plunging into the backs of his stalemated blockers.
It's probably that finish far more than the epic collapse at the end of the Insight Bowl or Mason's subsequent firing is the real barometer of the program's place in the league. Obviously, it's nowhere near the top, as evidenced by the 0-5 start against teams 1-5 in the final standings. But against the bottom - last year, that was 3-5 Indiana, 1-7 Michigan State and 2-6 Iowa, the Gophers' three late-season victims - they were still golden, as they certainly still expect to be when Illinois and Northwestern rotate back onto the schedule in place of Penn State and Michigan State. I don't know if that amounts to a defense of Minnesota's prized mediocrity, exactly, or if that needs defending, but depending on all the new variables - the coaches, the quarterback, the scheme - it stands to reason the persistently mediocre is still due some benefit of the doubt over the persistently bad.