4-4 is about as ordinary a record as a team could have. Not a losing team, nor a winning team, but just a team that's right there in the middle of the pack. Prior to the season there were reports that Minnesota had the 5th most difficult schedule in college football. Now, critics have forgotten about schedule strength and instead focus upon four losses and consecutive flops against Penn State and Ohio State. How difficult has the schedule actually been? Is the criticism of the program for the four losses justified? Let's work backwards through the losses:
Ohio State 38 - Minnesota 7
Minnesota's offense looked lost, the defense broke down in the second half, and once again Minnesota was a doormat for Ohio State (6-2) in Columbus. The offense appeared helpless and hopeless. Running backs were met behind the line of scrimmage, and receivers were unable to catch the few balls that were thrown to them accurately.
At 13.1 points per game allowed, Ohio State has the 7th best defense in all of college football. Sure, the Gophers could have had a better showing. While there were several mistakes made by the Gophers that are worthy of criticism, there is no way that the Gophers should have been expected to win this game.
Penn State 20 - Minnesota 0
Shutouts are an offensive coordinator's worst nightmare. A few words that many critics used to sum up the Gophers' offensive performance versus Penn State (7-1): horrid, abysmal, terrible, inept, impotent. Only 37 yards rushing and 138 total yards. But wait, because at only 8.9 points allowed per game Penn State has the best defense in the entire country.
This past Saturday, Michigan fans were excited to face Penn State at home after running up the score against lowly Delaware State to a final tally of 63-6. Michigan had 461 yards rushing and 727 total yards. How did they fare against the Nittany Lions? A modest 110 yards rushing, 250 total yards and 10 points. Penn State has an NFL-caliber defense, and proved their merit by slaughtering both the Wolverines and the Gophers in subsequent weeks. Joe Paterno's squad easily defeated Minnesota by 20 points and Michigan by 25 points due to his impenetrable defense.
Minnesota could have had a better showing, but once again victory would have been an unrealistic expectation.
Wisconsin 31 - Minnesota 28
Minnesota's three point loss to Wisconsin (5-2) at home may be the one game with an unexpected result. Wisconsin has a good record at 5-2, but three of those wins came against the likes of Wofford, Fresno State, and Northern Illinois. Wisconsin's solid game plan and bruising running attack were the differences in this game. If Minnesota had pulled this game out, they would be 5-3 and looking forward to a winning season. Unfortunately, they lost a close one.
California 35 - Minnesota 21
California (5-2) entered the contest as the 8th ranked team in the country. Minnesota played the 8th ranked team in the country on the same weekend that Wisconsin played Wofford and Michigan played Eastern Michigan. California's Jahvid Best ran for 5 touchdowns and Minnesota lost by 14 points, but the Gophers did enter the fourth quarter in a tie with the Golden Bears. Once again, California is not a team that Minnesota should have been expected to beat.
Despite two very poor showings against Oregon and USC for their only losses, California has been an offensive dynamo this season scoring 49 against Washington State, 45 points against UCLA, 59 points against Eastern Washington, and 52 points against Maryland. A loss that Minnesota should have been expected to take.
The Bottom Line
Let's not forget about the games that Minnesota has won. Syracuse has a losing record at 3-4, but all of their losses have been to quality opponents. Air Force is also 4-4 but only lost to 8th ranked TCU by three points, Navy by three points, and 19th ranked Utah in overtime. Northwestern is 5-3, and Purdue upset Ohio State last week despite an otherwise disappointing 3-5 record.
Yes, Minnesota's offense has underperformed. Yes, there have been unnecessary penalties and some discipline issues. But besides the loss to Wisconsin, the record should be somewhat in line with expectations considering the strength of the opponents. You must compare apples to apples, and this season's schedule is nothing like the non-conference creampuff buffets of years past.
Record alone is not a fair measure of success. Glenn Mason had the best showing of his ten year tenure with a 9-3 season in 2003, but included in those nine wins were victories over Troy, Tulsa, Ohio, and Louisiana-Lafayette. Minnesota did not defeat a single ranked team that year, and were blown out by 20th ranked Iowa by a score of 40-22 to finish the season. Several areas of Gopher football may warrant criticism in 2009, but their 4-4 record is much better than it appears to be.
I reiterate my stance from prior posts: If Minnesota can defeat either Michigan State or Illinois along with South Dakota State, the season should be considered respectable at 6-6. A 7-5 record would be reason for celebration.