FanPost

Can Minnesota get to a bowl game in 2012?

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via images.sportsnetwork.com

Is it too early to start talking about 2012? Since people are already starting to do it, I thought I might as well chip in and give my two cents. Besides, GopherNation said this:

When you end the season on a high note it is natural to start looking ahead to next season with renewed home and optimism (at least it is natural for me). So why wait till spring football or July positional previews to start looking at the 2012 Gopher football team?

Exactly.

What I'm going to do in this post is take a very quick glance at Minnesota's 2012 schedule and try to hypothesize if they can make it to a bowl game. You can obviously share your thoughts in the comments below.

This isn't going to discuss the Gophers overall as a team, and who's going to be on the roster. If you're interested in that, GopherNation does a fantastic run-down of Minnesota's offensive and defensive positions. It's definitely worth checking out before you read this.

Here's Minnesota's 2012 schedule:

at UNLV
New Hampshire
Western Michigan
Syracuse
at Iowa
Northwestern
at Wisconsin
Purdue
Michigan
at Illinois
at Nebraska
Michigan State

First, some preliminary overall thoughts. Is the schedule that tough? Well, for a rebuilding team, yes. The Gophers luckily miss Penn State and Ohio State (again), but they also don't get to go up against the Big Ten's other cellar-dweller, Indiana. Yet Minnesota still has to go up against Wisconsin, and of course all the teams from the Legends Division. No breaks from those guys, ever.

So, can Minnesota get to a bowl? To attempt to answer this and consider all sides, I'm going to present three scenarios. The first two are based purely on feelings, and third is a combination of the two, looking at the season pragmatically and realistically.

Note: The following is just a rudimentary prediction. Feel free to dispute any wins or losses I predict.

Okay, here's the first one.

Optimistic Scenario:

at UNLV (W)
New Hampshire (W)
Western Michigan (W)
Syracuse (W)
at Iowa (W)
Northwestern (W)
at Wisconsin (L)
Purdue (W)
Michigan (L)
at Illinois (W)
at Nebraska (L)
Michigan State (L)

Overall 2012 Record: 8-4

Aside from a perfect 12-0 record, this is the best that Gopher fans should hope for. Minnesota wins all of its non-conference games and makes a statement in the Big Ten. It beats Iowa (again), and by the end, the Gophers are more middle of the pack than bottom feeder. This is a very optimistic turnaround that would show that Jerry Kill can quickly produce results. More importantly, the Gophers get to go to a bowl. Most likely bowl game: Either Pizza Bowl or Gator Bowl.

Negative/Frustrating Scenario:

at UNLV (L)
New Hampshire (L)
Western Michigan (L)
Syracuse (W)
at Iowa (L)
Northwestern (L)
at Wisconsin (L)
Purdue (W)
Michigan (L)
at Illinois (W)
at Nebraska (L)
Michigan State (L)

Overall 2012 Record: 3-9

This means that the rebuilding thing is going to take a long, long time. Minnesota can't pull off all but one non-conference matchup, and only really has a shot to beat Illinois and Purdue, which I consistently list as Gopher wins. Purdue shouldn't be much better in 2012, and Illinois is getting a new coach, so I have no idea what's going on there.

This last one is, as I said, a combination of the two.

Realistic Scenario:

at UNLV (W)
New Hampshire (W)
Western Michigan (L)
Syracuse (W)
at Iowa (L)
Northwestern (L)
at Wisconsin (L)
Purdue (W)
Michigan (L)
at Illinois (W)
at Nebraska (L)
Michigan State (L)

Overall 2012 Record: 5-7

Honestly, I can't see Minnesota getting to a bowl game, but I can see some progress being made. I still think Minnesota can take out Purdue and Illinois (see above), but those might end up being Minnesota's only Big Ten wins. The Gophers would again finish sixth in the Legends Division, but at least they'd have a better record.

What we can conclude: Minnesota's non-conference schedule is absolutely critical in the Gophers' quest to get to a bowl game. In both my optimistic/negative scenarios, the non-conference play dictated a huge part of the overall record, and the overall play that became the season. Win out the non-conference games, and Minnesota has a completely better season. While there will still be tough games and likely losses, the Gophers will have enough momentum to carry them through the difficult schedule. Of course, stumbling in the non-conference schedule will almost certainly dictate a repeat of 2011.

Key games:

Northwestern. This is arguably Minnesota's most important game of 2012 and, even though it is not near the end of the season, it may become the game that decides whether or not the Gophers eventually go to a bowl. Minnesota should have a distinct advantage if they are prepared, because the Wildcats lose Dan Persa, their playmaker at quarterback. Northwestern's defense is also a big question mark, and if Jerry Kill can improve the Gophers enough to exploit their weaknesses, Minnesota could be looking at a possible 6-6 record instead of 5-7.

Syracuse. Even at my most skeptical, I still think that Minnesota has enough moxie to take on the Orange. That makes it probably Minnesota's most important non-conference game. Depending on how positive or negative you are, this may very well be Minnesota's only non-conference win. The Gophers can simply not allow themselves to enter the Big Ten at 0-4. Even if they stumble out of the gate, Kill's squad should have improved enough by the time they face Syracuse.

Likely losses:

Michigan. Like it or not, the Wolverines are in the midst of a resurgence. Despite the team's 10-2 regular season record this year, Brady Hoke is still frustrated that they didn't get to the Big Ten championship game. Expect that to be his No. 1 priority next year. Michigan's defense has improved dramatically and, with the best one of the best recruiting classes arriving for 2012 [Edit - Michigan was No. 1 when this was written; it is now No. 3, behind Texas and Alabama], it only looks to get better. Barring a miracle, there's no way Minnesota can win this one.

Wisconsin. The Badgers may lose Russell Wilson and (likely) Montee Ball, but that's still not enough to weaken their depth chart—or, at least, it's not enough to make it so Minnesota has a shot to beat them. They still have James White at running back, and plenty of playmakers on defense returning. Plus, the cheeky Bret Bielema has said that he'll definitely consider any stars who'd like to transfer to Wisconsin at quarterback, including Dayne Crist. Bielema, you cheeky bastard.

Toss ups:

Western Michigan. This is Minnesota's toughest non-conference opponent, in my opinion. Don't knock the Broncos simply because they're a MAC team. They're definitely good enough to take on Minnesota. Watch them in the Pizza Bowl against Purdue and tell me if they suck. They won't. The only true variable is that the Broncos lose Alex Carder at quarterback as well as a couple of wide receivers [Edit - Carder will actually be a redshirt senior in 2012]. It's certainly foreseeable that a rebuilt Minnesota could easily trounce these guys, but it's also just as foreseeable that they won't.

Michigan State. The Gophers have done well to finish each season strong, even if the overall record showed more losses than wins. Michigan State loses a lot of starters for next year, the most notable of which is Kirk Cousins. I have no idea how the Spartans are going to perform without such a proven leader. I'd love to see Minnesota win this one, but it's hard to say if they will.

Iowa. I really don't know what to say about this one. It's a toss-up because it just is.

Editors of The Daily Gopher retain the right to remove posts deemed excessively offensive or grossly inappropriate. Keep it clean and don't be mean.

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