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The Big Ten in Review: Minnesota

Scott Halleran

Over the next few weeks, Maize n' Brew is going to be doing a series of season reviews on our fellow Big Ten teams, just to get you up to speed. We'll take a look at their best and worst moments, their expectations coming in, and their expectations going forward. (This is mainly for you Michigan fans who don't follow other Big Ten teams and have no idea how good or bad they are.)

You may or may not recall that our head writer, Zach Travis, and company did something similar in the way of a conference preview, even for the teams Michigan didn't face.

This will be sort of the same thing; closing the book on 2012, so you can know what went down with each team.

We'll be starting with Minnesota.

General Synopsis:

Jerry Kill's second year proved to be a surprise to many fans. They started 4-0, going completely undefeated against their non-conference opponents, one of which was Syracuse, who'd hung in there with USC and ended up going 8-5. The first three games of the Gophers' conference showing were duds, with Minnesota losing to Northwestern and hated rivals Iowa and Wisconsin. They finally got one against a flailing Purdue team and clinched bowl eligibility against Illinois.

The Gophers won no trophy games (Little Brown Jug, Paul Bunyan's Axe, or Floyd of Rosedale), but a 6-6 record with a chance to play in a bowl game and the extra practices that provided turned out to be a decent consolation prize. Minnesota faced Texas Tech in the Meineke Car Care Bowl in Houston, stayed competitive, but ultimately lost 34-31.

Expectations Coming In:

Pretty low. Even the most optimistic Gopher fans were betting all of their optimism on 5-7, and 6-6 if they got lucky. Everyone else in the college football world predicted 4-8.

The general feeling was that this was quarterback MarQueis Gray's last shot to get it all right: nearly every pre-season preview thought the Gopher offense began and ended with Gray and any chance of success in 2012 hinged on his ability to make plays. Instead, Gray floundered for a few games, sustained an injury to his knee, and the story of 2012 became less about what could have been with Gray and more about what could be with the new guy: Philip Nelson.

Best Moment of 2012:

The victory against Illinois, which pushed Minnesota's win total to 6 and just enough to get them bowl eligibility. The Gophers hadn't been to a bowl since 2009, the third year of the Tim Brewster era and right before the program cratered. Though there are still Kill-skeptics, improving from 3 wins to 6 was clearly a step forward.

Though a possible runner up may be the emergence of Philip Nelson during the Wisconsin game. Kill's decision to put Nelson in was highly controversial; Nelson was a true freshman that many expected to eventually take over, but in a few years. Instead, the Minnesota native proved to have serious skills and was instrumental in sustaining offensive drives. He officially became the future of Gopher football.

Of course, this prompted a large debate of whether Kill should have put Nelson in at the start of the season, or if the Gophers could have weathered well enough to get to 6-6 without burning Nelson's redshirt. Hindsight largely says that Kill had to give Gray the nod because of his senior status, at least for a while, though Gopher fans don't agree on this. Regardless, Minnesota fans are generally happy with the results achieved with Nelson at the helm.

Worst Moment of 2012:

Probably A.J. Barker's ignominious exit. There were many moments on the field that the Gophers regret greatly, but this one happened off the field. Barker wrote a strongly worded letter upwards of 5,000 words accusing Jerry Kill of mishandling his injury, withholding a scholarship, belittling his personal beliefs, and generally verbally abusing him (in the, uh, non-productive way).

Regardless of whether people sided with Barker or Kill, the episode was an embarrassment to the university. Not only did Minnesota lose the guy who was statistically their most productive receiver, but it also served to get the folks restless about Jerry Kill, someone who was already embattled with seizure disorders and building a program.

Both Kill and Minnesota fans have generally dismissed Barker's complaints as sour grapes (he was clearly bitter about not getting a scholarship after becoming the starter), but it doesn't change the fact that it happened and it didn't exactly bring great P.R. to Minneapolis.

A possible runner up to Worst Moment seems trivial now, or infuriating depending on how you look at it: Kill's controversial decision to back out of the home-and-home series with North Carolina, which was slated to start in 2013.

Kill's rationale: the non-conference schedule needs to be easier. This was highly debated among Gopher fans who dread returning to the Glen Mason era of scheduling (who took a page right out of the Bill Synder handbook of How to Build a Program - Step 1: Lots of JUCOs and FCS opponents) and those who welcome it because it could mean more wins.

Here's something interesting: Tim Brewster subscribed to the philosophy that more challenging non-conference matchups means more competitive play. As a result, Minnesota scheduled a home-and-home with USC. It didn't go well.

Expectations Going Forward:

Moderate. The Gophers have talent going forward. Philip Nelson did uncharacteristically well for a true freshman and it feels like the sky's the limit for someone so early in his collegiate career. He gained invaluable leadership experience and has all the skills needed to take the team forward.

Defense also improved substantially. Defensive tackle RaShede Hageman emerged as a legitimate pass rusher, as the Gophers jumped to No. 33 in total defense and totaled 26 sacks, more than twice as many as in 2011.

The narrative of Minnesota football will be all about going forward. True, that's what every program says, but when it comes to Minnesota they want literally anything other than a step backwards. Getting to a bowl game was a step in the right direction, and while the Gophers may not be ready to challenge for the Big Ten title, they seem poised to break through to a season over .500 and a consecutive bowl appearance.

7-5 or 8-4 seems like a reasonable ceiling for 2013; anything less than 6-6 would be a disappointment.