MnB B1G Preview: The Biggest Storylines Surrounding Minnesota football

Head coach Jerry Kill. - Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

In this installment of the Maize n' Brew Big Ten Preview series, we take a look at Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill and what the program's biggest storylines are going into 2014.

Should Jerry Kill Retire?

There's no question that through the efforts of Jerry Kill and his staff the Minnesota Golden Gophers football program has been dug out of the pit of terribleness. Kill took over a program that was listless, aimless, and hopeless, a program cratered by Tim Brewster's wildly ineffective coaching, where they were beaten soundly by lesser competition. Kill's Gopher squad in 2011 was a bit of a stumbling block but they improved every week as the season went on, even though the number of wins didn't reflect it.

In 2012, Kill got the Gophers back to being a bowl team. They did so through the old, tried-and-tested Glen Mason method: schedule weak, beatable teams for your non-conference games, take care of business there, and then squeak by two Big Ten teams to get to six wins. The Gophers may have buckled against Texas Tech in the 2012 Texas bowl, but at least they had gotten to the post-season.

Kill's program took a pretty impressive step forward in 2013. Though they were beaten back-to-back by Michigan and Iowa, and it wasn't really close in either contest, Minnesota pulled off two shocking upsets against Nebraska and Penn State. (You could even argue the Indiana victory was one, as that game more than any other kept the Hoosiers from bowl eligibility.) They kept things relatively competitive against Wisconsin and Michigan State, which is saying something. Then they suffered a fourth quarter collapse against Syracuse in the 2013 Texas Bowl.

Still, progress is progress.

So, now to the question I asked. It's not really about the success of Jerry Kill or his staff. They have done an excellent job, and I wanted to make that clear. The question is more about Kill's health. He spent more than half of the 2013 season coaching from the press box. He missed the Michigan game altogether because of another seizure. His health has often been the subject of numerous articles by local Minneapolis outlets.

It's obvious Kill has a condition and he has been dealing with it, or attempting to deal with it. But even his doctors say that the coaching profession is probably the primary cause for his critical health episodes. It would be wrong to say that Kill's seizures somehow "hold the team back," but this isn't about wins. It's about a man's health and not putting himself at risk during every game.

Kill is tough as nails and has no plans to retire. He recently stated that he plans to spend the entire 2014 season on the Gopher sideline as the head coach, fulfilling all, not just some, of his coaching duties. Given Kill's history, the fact that he has missed at least one game every year as the head coach of the Gophers, I would be shocked to see him last the entire season without incident. I certainly hope that he can, but at this point I doubt it.

No one would blame Kill if he gave up coaching. He has established a solid program and defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys has done admirably well as the acting head coach when Kill has been absent. Kill's had a very good run over the course of his head coaching career, not just at Minnesota but in general. He's been a stalwart rebuilder of downtrodden programs and for that he has my utmost respect. I still can't help but feel, however, that he might be better off taking a more unofficial role in the program rather than staying at one where his family must constantly worry about him. Even Bo Schembechler stayed on as a figurehead at Michigan after his retirement.

Minnesota's Trajectory: Up, Down, or Static?

2014 could be a very exciting time for Gopher fans. Minnesota will have its most experienced offensive line ever under Jerry Kill (that's usually a good thing for Big Ten offenses) and a killer running game that was surprisingly effective in 2013. They have Mitch Leidner, a sophomore quarterback with plenty of experience, leading the offense. They have a lot of exciting youth expected to contribute and highly touted recruits like Berkley Edwards and four-star running back Jeff Jones stepping on the field. They also have nearly everyone returning in their defensive secondary. It's hard to see this team taking a massive step back in terms of production.

Yet the schedule doesn't look so encouraging, in my humble, biased opinion. Minnesota broke through to eight wins in 2013 because it upset Penn State and Nebraska, both at home. Though Penn State is no longer on the schedule, the Gophers do square off again against Nebraska, and the Cornhuskers are a different team in Lincoln, where the game is set to be played. They have a tough slate of road contests (at Michigan, at Nebraska, at Wisconsin) that makes a prediction of 10 wins seem a little out of reach. Even their non-conference bout against TCU in Fort Worth could be a bruiser. And the Gophers also face Ohio State for the first time since 2010. It's at home, but historically, the series hasn't leaned in Minnesota's favor. No pressure there or anything.

Don't get me wrong; it's not unreasonable to think the Gophers could have another surprising explosion of upsets after the kind of season they had in 2013. Minnesota's trajectory could very well be trending skywards. It's not like they're coming off a 4-8 or 3-9 season and we're saying they're going to be like Auburn contending for the national championship. Kill's team has improved categorically week-to-week, season-to-season, year-to-year, and based on those facts, it wouldn't be prudent to sleep on the Gophers.

But as much as the Maroon and Gold were competitive, solid, and scrappy, they weren't without issues. They weren't dominant. Despite the fact that Minnesota had the better overall season than Michigan, they still couldn't best the Wolverines, who had one of the worst offensive showings in recent memory. You might think that taking away Penn State from the schedule lightens things up, but then you remember that they add Ohio State, a team that looks to be much tougher in all aspects. If the Gophers lose games against everyone they should lose to as a matter of record, stats, setting, or power--Ohio State, Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska, Michigan--that's five losses right there. Their November stretch alone feels like four automatic losses.

What does that mean? That means that the Gophers will have to pull one or two big upsets, just like they did in 2013, if they want to be perceived as taking another impressive step forward. Getting to 8-4 alone would be impressive. Taking out Nebraska for a second straight year, or besting Iowa (not out of the realm of possibility), or by achieving "program defining" upsets against either Wisconsin, Ohio State, or Michigan would be absolutely huge for Minnesota. That should be just enough for the fan base, unless anyone in Maroon and Gold garb is seeing stars of 10 wins.

The Gophers should definitely be good enough to get to a bowl game for the third straight year, and that's almost more important (at least in my opinion of them) than matching last year's win total. If they go undefeated in the non-conference, something they've been able to do consistently for back-to-back years, all they'll need is two wins against Purdue and Illinois to get to a bowl game. Throw in Northwestern and you've got a bona fide seventh win, but where does the eighth come from? That's the big question.

Don't be surprised if the Gophers do very well, or if they do slightly less impressively than last season. It isn't a terrible backslide if Minnesota drops four or five games. Getting to six wins alone will show that the Gophers are firmly established; eight will show that they mean business. Yet with that cringe-worthy November slate (Iowa, Ohio State, at Nebraska, at Wisconsin), I can't see the Gophers breaking through to 9-3. A win over Michigan, especially if the Wolverines have gotten nowhere since spring ball, shouldn't be an entirely shocking concept, and I do envy Minnesota's identity on offense, but in Michigan Stadium, the Maize and Blue will have to be pretty bad to drop that one.

Offense vs. Defense

If you haven't already, you should really check out Bill Connelly's pre-season preview of Minnesota. He provides a really good run-down of what the Gophers accomplished in 2013 and what they're bringing back for 2014. If you don't feel like reading the whole thing, here's the long and short of it: Minnesota will almost certainly rely on their stout running game, Leidner is the undisputed signal caller at quarterback, they lose some power on the defensive line, but the secondary is deep and experienced.

Minnesota's offense should not be a total mystery going into 2014. As I mentioned previously, they're showing up with perhaps the most experienced offensive line Jerry Kill has seen as a Division-1 head coach, certainly in his time as a Big Ten head coach. With the departure of Philip Nelson, the reigns are left in the hands of sophomore Mitch Leidner, who many fans felt was the better option at quarterback anyway. But you really shouldn't expect to see Leidner become the second coming of former Gopher quarterback Adam Weber, who is known for breaking all of Minnesota's passing records despite enduring terrible seasons. The general consensus is that Minnesota is not going to pass the ball when they can run, and they are going to run a lot. As one Minnesota fan aptly put it, Leidner simply has to avoid being a liability.

Bruising backs like Rodrick Williams Jr. (a.k.a. "Nugget") and David Cobb became bona-fide Big Ten rushers in 2013. Both averaged more than 5.0 yards a carry, although Cobb was the only rusher to break 1,000 yards individually. Still, the combination of Williams and Cobb saw Minnesota's rushing game going over 1,500 yards -- so even if the Gophers weren't exactly the Badgers in terms of breaking off big runs and racking up insane rushing yards against everybody, they were at least productive. (Nelson was also a rushing quarterback, but he's not factored into the equation anymore.) And if Kill's offense wants to bring on talented youngsters like Berkley Edwards and Jeff Jones, they could add some explosive speed to the mix. At least on paper, the rushing attack should be a strength.

However, if I do have a concern about Minnesota and Jerry Kill on offense, it's their constant use of replacing starters by taking a chance on youth rather than trusting experience. Three times has Kill unseated his quarterback for a freshman. In addition, Donnell Kirkwood, who led the Gophers in rushing for most of 2012, took a back seat to Williams and Cobb at running back. Obviously the strategy here is to take the quick reward where you can get it. No matter how old or how young the player is, the best one goes on the field. Still, you have to think that Kill is going to stick with the same guys at some point, right? How can Leidner in particular get any sense of stability if he's constantly looking over his shoulder, if Kill benches him at the first sign of trouble? Max Shortell and Philip Nelson both transferred because they saw the writing on the wall. It would be a shame if Leidner was beat out and similarly left the program.

On defense, the Gophers return a lot of pieces. Minnesota wasn't spectacular in either rushing defense (No. 8 in the conference) or passing defense (No. 5 in the conference), and Michigan fans might look at the departure of defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman as something not to get excited about either way because he was generally a non-factor in the Michigan game. (Where Hageman really stood out, if you're curious as to why he was a second-round draft pick, was against Nebraska, where he practically dominated.) The Gophers will have to generate something of a pass rush and try to maintain their sack rate if they want to stay at the same level they were in 2013. The pieces on the defensive line, aside from possibly redshirt junior defensive end Theiren Cockran, aren't quite as proven. Ask any Gopher fan and they'll tell you Hageman was a mainstay.

Although Connelly says that the Gopher secondary is the strength of the defense, as it returns more experience there than any other defensive unit, Michigan fans might not find themselves too troubled by the thought of Minnesota defensive backs, as Wolverine quarterback Devin Gardner put up 235 yards and posted a completion percentage of 76.5, practically shredding them with his passes to Devin Funchess and Jeremy Gallon. (As long as Gardner is turnover-prone, anything is possible, however.) Throughout Kill's tenure, the secondary has played lights-out one game and god-awful the next, so this could very well turn out to be a key unit if the right one chooses to show up in Ann Arbor.

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