By most rational perspectives (not those calling in to KFAN's Gopher fan line after a loss), the Gophers' 2012 regular season was a success for Coach Jerry Kill and his team. The Gophers won as many games this season as they had in the previous two campaigns combined, suffered no embarrassing non-conference losses to inferior opponents, beat the teams in the Big Ten they needed to, got a lot of young players experience for the future and, most importantly, qualified for the postseason. They did so despite a continuos and ferocious rash of injuries to key players on offense, most notably quarterback and offensive line.
There were granular examples of legitimate gripes from the fanbase, not the least of which was losing to a dramatically inferior Iowa squad (albeit on the road), some questionable coaching decisions in key games and woeful performances by the offense down the stretch. But, superficially and in real terms, the 2012 iteration of Gopher football was a modest improvement over the previous two seasons.
At the end of the day, that was the most important barometer for defining success in 2012: moving the team forward, and continued improvement. That the team did so and qualified for a bowl game in the process is an added bonus.
Stealing from a future blog post of mine here, after re-simulating the season based upon data as of last weekend, Minnesota would have qualified for a bowl game approximately 39% of the time with an average of 4.2 wins against FBS opponents. In non-computer or stats terms, Minnesota did everything they needed to do in order to earn post-season eligibility: win the three games in which they were favored (UNLV, Western Michigan and Illinois), win the toss-up game (Purdue) and steal a game against a team they probably shouldn't have defeated (Syracuse).
More globally, Kill and his staff were able to improve upon the Gophers' win-loss record by focusing on one key aspect: improving the Minnesota defense. In virtually every defensive category, the 2012 defense was superior to the 2011 instance against FBS foes: points allowed (25.5 to 31.2), yards per play allowed (5.39 to 5.90), yards per passing play (6.2 to 7.2), turnovers generated (16 to 9) and passes defended (57 to 31). The real driving force behind the turnaround? A much improved passing defense, led by the resurgent Michael Carter and better safety play, especially from a pair of CBs converts: Derrick Wells and Brock Vereen. The secondary did a much better job in 2012 of attacking passes and going after the ball, limiting opposing FBS quarterbacks to a 115.01 passer efficiency rating and a 56.1% completion percentage, both of which were dramatically better than 2011.
Complimenting the secondary was the improved play of the Gopher defensive line against the pass. In 2011, the d-line had only 8.5 sacks combined; D.L. Wilhite had 8.5 sacks by himself this season. In fact, of the Gophers' 25 sacks, only 3 came from non-linemen. When you consider Minnesota had only 8 sacks total back in 2010, the turnaround in defensive line pressure in just two years time is one of defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys' biggest achievements at Minnesota.
While the defense took a few steps forward in 2012, the offense had more than their share of issues this season that may actually qualify as a regression. When MarQueis Gray suffered a high ankle sprain and knee injury against Western Michigan, Minnesota's shot at improving over their lowest offensive output in over a decade took a serious blow. When Matt Limegrover was forced to play 9+ offensive linemen and 5 different starting combinations, fighting to keep everything afloat -not to mention, keeping Philip Nelson upright- became priority #1. With all the adversity the offense experienced due to injuries, it's a small wonder the team was able to put up enough points to notch six victories on the season. Indeed, if not for outbursts of production in overtime against UNLV, the second quarter of the Western Michigan game (where Max Shortell spelled Gray in relief) and the second quarter against Purdue, the Gophers may be looking down the barrel of another three win season.
Fortunately for the Gophers and Minnesota fans, the offense produced when they absolutely needed to and secured the all important six regular season wins. Kill notched his first Big Ten road victory and two road wins overall, 2 more road wins than the team had all of last season. An offense poised to return 10 starters, including every offensive linemen and a young quarterback, will get another 15 practices to work on timing, continuity, execution and simply getting healthy ahead of the 2013 season. The 2013 season should feature a deeper, more experienced team at virtually every position for Coach Kill, plus a little something extra that Minnesota hasn't seen in quite a while: little to no coaching staff turnover for a second consecutive offseason.
So, while the Gophers may have qualified for a bowl by the skin of their collective teeth, they achieved what they set out to at the beginning of the year. That in and of itself represents progress, considering the reasonable expectations for the season from media and fans were a modest 4 to 6 wins at best. Let's enjoy bonus football for the Gophers, savoring it for exactly what it represents -real progress from the depths of 2010 and 2011- rather than the gripes about lack of national relevance or the like.
Any forward progress, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant to the casual fan, is a big deal for the Gophers.