Minnesota football has had a pretty solid turnaround when you consider it in terms of how generally awful everyone thinks it is. Tim Brewster did Jerry Kill no favors, running the program thoroughly into the ground after the underwhelming but still solid Glen Mason years, and the 2011 Gophers looked for a while to be one of the worst BCS conference teams of all time. Late wins against Iowa and Illinois coupled with a couple scrappy performances were something to build on and helped move Minnesota from the legions of All-Time Worst to simply Pretty Bad.
So year two of Kill's tenure took that late season success and extrapolated it into what is widely considered the next step in things like this. Minnesota won enough to go to a bowl game, earning a .500 record thanks to a perfect 4-0 start to the season.
So where to now? Minnesota's march to a bowl was aided greatly by just how bad some of those teams it beat were. Disregarding FCS New Hampshire, Minnesota beat two other mid-majors that failed to make a bowl themselves, and conference wins came against the tire fire that was Illinois and a Purdue team that didn't have many impressive wins to its name either.
Year three is commonly when a new coach's team firmly becomes his and the shift is complete, and with Philip Nelson and Donnell Kirkwood back, Minnesota should have some consistency on offense, which could help the unit catch up to the not terrible defense of last year.
The schedule also sets up well as Minnesota plays no one of consequence in the non-conference (vs. UNLV, at New Mexico St, vs. Western Illinois, vs. San Jose St.) while getting games against Indiana and Iowa. However, the other six Big Ten games (UM, MSU, PSU, Neb, NW, Wisc) all seem to be firmly out of reach at this time.
And therein lies the rub. Minnesota made the first logical step in working back into Big Ten relevancy, but the next step is a doozy. Bottom half of the conference is a group of teams that the Gophers should reasonably be competitive with, but the top six or so teams don't look to be within Minnesota's grasp just yet.
Is another year of bowling good enough? Can Minnesota even reach that given the fact that the schedule would force the Gophers to be perfect in both games they should win and games that are toss ups?
Jerry Kill has put together a solid start at Minnesota, but it is hard to imagine 2013 being anything other than the year the Gophers spin their wheels in hopes of building enough talent and depth on the roster to start actually competing with some of these Big Ten teams that aren't Indiana and Purdue. It may not be a lot, but the road back from where Tim Brewster led them was always going to be a lot longer than anyone wanted.