My regular Monday column this season has been all about keeping things in perspective. The Gophers are 4-0 and we should be excited about the improvement of this program. They have beat all four teams placed across the line of scrimmage from them and are riding a 5-game winning streak dating back to last season. This is nothing to scoff at and we should absolutely be excited about the start for several reasons.
First and foremost we should be very excited about the defense, which has been vastly better than anticipated. The eye test makes it obvious, the stats prove it.
|Pass Yds Allowed||278.5||179.0|
|Rush Yds Allowed||104.8||128.5|
|Opp 3rd Down %||46.9%||35.4%|
Those stats are incredible. We are giving up 10 fewer points per game, 100 passing yards less per game and racking up a ton of sacks & turnovers. Was our schedule that much tougher last year? Maybe slightly, but the difference is not as dramatic as those statistical differences. USC is certainly a much stronger opponent but New Mexico State and UNLV are fair comparisons as are Western Michigan and Miami (OH). In fact the 2012 opponents might be tougher in those instances. And to be fair, USC didn't score much on our defense, only rushing for 67 yards and even Miami (OH) threw for more yards against us. This year we have faced two potent passing attacks that currently rank 7th and 10th nationally in passing yards per game. And our defense has risen to the challenge.
Individually there are a number of kids who have improved and collectively as a unit we are then that much better. Derrick Wells is the surprise of the team, Ra'Shede Hageman has done what we all said he needed to do. Michael Carter is living up to the hype and nearly everyone else is playing at a higher level than they were a year ago. The only exceptions would be at linebacker, but they will get a better chance to prove themselves this week at Iowa.
The next area of improvement that is giving us reason to be confident in our 2012 squad is the new found depth. We have lost our quarterback and continued to win. The focal point of our offense and the leader of the team goes down to injury for our two most difficult non-conference games, and it is like we don't miss a beat with Max Shortell. We are regularly seeing defensive linemen, linebackers and defensive backs rotating in and out on defense to keep players fresh; again without missing a beat. Martez Shabazz starts playing well as the team's nickle back before he goes down to an injury but then we have Jeremy Baltazar step in against the Syracuse passing attack. Five different D-backs have interceptions, four different linemen have sacks and five different linebackers have 10 tackles or more. Offensively we have depth at wide receiver that we never thought would be and we have already had to shift around the OL without missing a beat.
Things are going well for this team right now and it isn't because they are getting lucky. As stated, we have reasons to be confident in this team. But for me, one question still remains...just how confident can we be against our Big Ten brethren? Because I'm starting to detect a hint of OVER-confidence in this team. Yes we have played well, we have a very solid defense and we are 4-0. But you don't go from a 3-9 team to an upper-tier Big Ten team over night.
Most of this perception, or so I think, is due to the fact that the rest of the Big Ten has struggled so much this season. Wisconsin has been pretty bad (by their standards) and is lucky to be 3-1, Iowa has been bad (by any standards) and is lucky to be 2-2. Michigan is not nearly as good as they thought, Michigan State's offense has been stagnant, Illinois was just creamed by Louisiana Tech and other B1G mishaps have occurred over the last four weeks. I don't think there is any doubt that we are better and much of the rest of the league is struggling.
You may recall that a year ago there was a chasm between most of the Big Ten and the Gophers. Certainly that gap has closed, but how much? And how many wins is that going to translate into? The problem I have when looking at the schedule is that some of the teams I am confident against are all on the road. Here is what I see.
Iowa and Illinois - both teams I think we would be favored to beat on a neutral field. But both are on the road. We haven't won in Iowa City since 1999! Illinois is going to be one of those tricky teams that looks good one week and struggles the next. Were these home games, I'd be guaranteeing wins. Unfortunately we have to earn these in our road whites.
Northwestern and Purdue - Two other teams who are looking better this year than they did last and we get them at home. Both of these teams are good and my guess is they will be favored to win even with it being at TCF.
Michigan, Nebraska and Michigan State - they have stubbed their toes and are not playing at a BCS Bowl level, but they are still in another tier. In my mind these games have moved from certain losses to likely losses where an upset could happen. Regardless of location, we will not be favored.
Wisconsin - they are their only special category this year. At one time I would have lumped them in with Mich, MSU and Neb; but not anymore. This is still a likely loss because it is on the road and I can't erase the memories of being physically dominated for two years in a row. It is tough to recover from what they have lost, particularly their entire assistant coaching staff and they are struggling to get back on track. Can we win this game? Sure.
It is very possible that we will not be favored in any of our remaining games. Fortunately being the underdog doesn't guarantee a loss, but the point is that I'm not sure we should start getting too confident. YET. I wouldn't be shocked if we won half of our Big Ten games, but I also will not be shocked if we only win a quarter of them.
This is me trying to temper expectations. Ignore my advice at your own peril.