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Big Ten Football Preview 2015: Minnesota's season outlook

Jerry Kill has transformed Minnesota into a winner. Can the Golden Gophers win the (Big Ten) West this year?

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The Jerry Kill era at Minnesota is off and running. The Golden Gophers won eight games in each of the past two seasons, and appear primed for the top spot in the Big Ten's West division if they can replace offensive threats David Cobb and Maxx Williams.

This week, we take a look at Minnesota in our Big Ten football preview season outlook series.

Key returnees

Mitch Leidner enters his junior season as Minnesota's main offensive threat. That's because Cobb and Williams departed for the NFL.

Cobb had a fantastic season in 2014, rushing 314 times for 1629 yards, both single-season school records, and 13 touchdowns. Williams posted the best statistical season for tight ends in Minnesota history last year, totaling 569 yards and eight scores on 36 receptions.

Back to Leidner. In 12 games last season, he completed 122-of-237 passes for 1798 yards and 11 touchdowns.

Minnesota's offense heavily featured the running game — the Golden Gophers ranked 121st amongst FBS teams in passing offense last season (141.8 yards/game) — and Leidner was a part of that. He rushed for 452 yards and 10 scores on 126 carries, and leads all returning rushers.

KJ Maye started to come into his own as Minnesota's season progressed last year, and is one of its top returnees at wide receiver. He caught 16 passes for 298 yards and a touchdown in 13 games.

After redshirting last season, prized homegrown recruit Jeff Jones moves to wide receiver, according to CBS Minnesota. He should be able to provide a boost to a depleted receiving corps.

Fifth-year senior Briean Boddy-Calhoun returns after starring on a dominant passing defense unit; the Golden Gophers ranked 18th amongst FBS teams in passing defense last season (193.5 yards/game).

The All-Big Ten First Team media selection totaled 51 tackles and five interceptions in 13 games last season.

Fellow fifth-year senior De'Vondre Campbell was a force on defense for Minnesota last season. He totaled 75 tackles (leads all returnees), recovered three fumbles and returned an interception for a touchdown.

To-do list

Minnesota must figure out how its going to alleviate the absences of Cobb and Williams. No ifs, ands or butts.

The Pioneer Press reports that Kill will open fall camp using three running backs, pointing out senior Rodrick Williams's strong spring. He rushed for 114 yards and three touchdowns in 13 games last season.

Also in the mix are redshirt sophomore Berkley Edwards and redshirt freshman Rodney Smith.

Edwards, the younger brother of famed Wolverines' receiver Braylon, is a Michigan talent but hasn't seen the field that often with Cobb holding down duties. He totaled 30 rushes for 140 yards and two touchdowns in 12 games. Smith is a three-star recruit out of Jonesboro, Ga. and redshirted last year.

Williams was Minnesota's leading receiver and his absence is huge for a team that hopes to contend for a division title. He outgained second-leading tight end Lincoln Plsek by 513 yards last season.

There's no replacing a talent like Williams, who was drafted in the second round by the Baltimore Ravens in April, but Minnesota must try something. The Gophers have nine tight ends on their roster. Only three saw time at tight end, including Plsek, who is a blocking tight end.

The schedule

Sept. 3 vs. TCU
Sept. 12 at Colorado State
Sept. 19 vs. Kent State
Sept. 26 vs. Ohio (Homecoming)
Oct. 3 at Northwestern
Oct. 10 at Purdue
Oct. 17 vs. Nebraska
Oct. 31 vs. Michigan
Nov. 7 at Ohio State
Nov. 14 at Iowa
Nov. 21 vs. Illinois
Nov. 28 vs. Wisconsin

Minnesota opens the season on a Thursday vs. national-title contender TCU. It travels to Colorado State and hosts MAC foes Kent State and Ohio to wrap up the non-conference schedule.

The Golden Gophers' two crossover games feature tough opponents in Michigan and Ohio State. Michigan should be much more of a challenge than last year with Jim Harbaugh at the helm, while Ohio State is Ohio State.

Rivals Nebraska and Wisconsin travel to Minnesota this season. These two games are must-wins for the Golden Gophers if they hope to win the West division title.

A trip to Iowa in mid-November is worth watching. Minnesota stomped the Hawkeyes 51-14 last season and there could be a bit of revenge from the home team this time around.