Much has been discussed about the year 3 turnaround for rebuilding programs and many wonder if this is the year a surprise turnaround happens for the Golden Gopher Football team. Jerry Kill has downplayed expectations that this is the year to see a spike in wins. What he has not been shy about is the need for his program to notch that first signature win.
"You've got to find a way to get one of those signature wins, get one of those games," he said. "We play three or four rival games. We need to get one of those, maybe do it with a [last-minute] field goal. Everywhere I've been, we've had kind of a signature game where it flipped and we really got going for the program."
This program is stronger and more athletic and more prepared for Big Ten opponents than at any other point in Kill's tenure here. But this team is still young and while I believe we will be better, I'm not ready to say this looks to me like a 9 or 10 win team. With that said, will they be able to play well for at least one key game and come away with a signature win in 2013?
First of all, what defines a "signature" win? Jerry Kill's Gophers beating Iowa in 2011 was a very big win and it secured one of our precious rivalry trophies for another year. I in no way want to diminish that win or what it meant or how it demonstrated to the fan base that maybe Kill was moving this program in the right direction. But Iowa was not a great team in 2011 and this was actually the 2nd year in a row where Floyd was allowed to stay where he belongs. Great win, but no a signature one. After winning the year before, this one wasn't a huge surprise. Rule #1, this win must be unique.
For my money getting a signature win in 2013 means we have to beat a ranked team. But it can't just be any ranked team. San Jose State is receiving votes in the USA Today Top 25. Assuming they start 2-0, there is a chance they'll be ranked when they come to TCF Bank Stadium on Sept 21st. A win over a #24 San Jose State team does not count as a signature win. Rule #2, it must be a good ranked team.
Finally, this win has to be one that nobody saw coming, a momentum builder. For Glen Mason it was his 1999 win over #2 Penn State on the road. For Tim Brewster it was the...nevermind, he never had one. This has to be a game that you use in recruiting. This is the one where you beat a highly ranked opponent, a nationally recognized program. A real signature win shows fans and recruits that you are not only capable of beating Big Ten teams, you are capable of beating the best. Rule #3, it has to be over a recognizable program.
So with that criteria in mind, let's take a look at the potential signature wins on this year's schedule. First I'll weed out the ones that do not qualify.
- @New Mexico State
- Western Illinois
- San Jose State
- @ Indiana
That is just under half of the schedule. I'm not sure anyone would quibble with any of the teams on the list above. Iowa will be a nice win but considering some believe we'll finish ahead of the Hawkeyes in the standings I don't think this is a statement win.
Next up are two games that would be very nice wins. They will likely meet criteria for rules 1 and 2, but I don't think they really count for rule #3 (recognizable program). Yes they will both be games on the road against a ranked team, but I don't think this is a Sports Center win. Not a win that gets the attention of recruits.
- @Michigan State
Northwestern is #22 to begin the season, they were very close to 10 or 11 regular season wins last year and they are hopeful for that this year. But I'm leaving them off of the "signature win" list for a couple reasons. One, they are facing Ohio State and Wisconsin in the two weeks leading up to the Gopher game. And regardless of what they do in those games (I'm assuming 0-2 or 1-1), a loss to Minnesota is going to send the message that Northwestern isn't quite as good as we thought they were. It would have nothing to do with the Gophers heading in the right direction. You don't sit in a recruit's living room and hold up a win over Northwestern as the biggest win in your 3-year tenure. It would be a big win, huge really. But I'm hoping for more.
@Michigan State is a game with similar logic applied to the Northwestern game. They have recorded 11 wins in two of the last three years, been to the B1G Championship game, been to January bowl games and this would be an excellent win. But like I said with Northwestern, still not a home-run win when you are selling your program to recruits. In the final game of the year, maybe they are a top 15 team and this is a Sport Center worthy win that puts us into a good bowl while knocking the Spartans out of the B1G Title game.
If everything falls just right for either of the teams below, this win would take on added meaning. But from a historical perspective, looking for a helmet school win; these don't quite cut it. Obviously we will be underdogs and this will not be a game that the national media cares about, but wining either of the above games would be a notch below the other 4 opponents on the signature scale.
Here are the 4 games I see at genuine opportunities for the Gophers to notch a signature win.
#4 - Penn State - A hard team to figure out but the Nittany Lions surprised everybody last year going 8-2 after an 0-2 start. Bill O'Brien did a great coaching job last year but will the scholarship depth start to catch up with Penn State this year? This would be a big win, especially if Penn State comes into this game with a 6-2 record. And are they ripe for an upset loss at the hands of the Gophers?
Questions around who will be QB and their defensive front seven give me a ray of hope for the Gophers. That and my belief that is going to be hard for Coach to push the right buttons and get his team to play so inspired for a second consecutive year. This should be a good offensive line with good weapons on offense. Finding a quarterback has to be priority number one. If PSU makes a few mistakes and the Gophers are able to capitalize, this could be a big upset win for Minnesota.
#3 - Nebraska - What used to be an oft-played and good rivalry has been awful for decades. Beating Nebraska would be a monster statement game. No question about it.
To get it done the Gophers will have to move the ball against the Husker defense. This defense was suspect in 2012 and lost a bunch of starters. Losing all of those starters may end up being a good thing for what was once a proud defense. Their knack for giving up big plays give the Gophers a chance.
#2 - @Michigan - The Jug is the original rivalry trophy and it has been in Minnesota just once since 1986! ONCE in 26 years. This would be a HUGE win. Michigan losing would be a lead story nationally, with video of little maroon and gold Gophers earning that win and then sprinting across The Big House field to grab the Jug.
Next question is, can the Gophers pull it off? We might be coming into this game with a high level of confidence and potentially a 5-0 record but this is easily the least likely of the four. Margin of victory for the Wolverines of the Gophers the last three seasons has been 22, 58 and 23; it is not like we've been knocking on the door. This one is also in The Big House against what is arguably the 2nd best team in the conference.
#1 - Wisconsin - I realize that Michigan is Leader's Division favorite and also holds a precious rivalry trophy. But it is time that we beat Wisconsin, our neighbor who has been to three straight Rose Bowls. Nationally, beating Michigan would probably make bigger waves. But within the fan base and in regional recruiting battles, this one would be huge. This used to be a great rivalry that is apparently fading.
Can the Gophers beat the Badgers? The slim sliver of hope that we can cling to is the uncertainty after a coaching staff change, some losses along the offensive line and on defense should make the Badgers a bit more vulnerable in 2013. This game comes in a lull in the Badgers schedule. BYU, Indiana and then a trip to Minnesota. This is actually a bad thing as a rivalry game might be the only thing that gets Wisconsin inspired in the month of November.
None of those games are going to be easy and we will obviously be double-digit underdogs in all of them. I am in no way projecting a win in any of the six games listed as possibly signature wins. These are simply the ones that would really count as a signature win. These are the ones we would put on the resume heading into 2014 with hopes of even more wins.
Building a program from the bottom up requires taking steps in the right direction. Year one is just getting the foundation laid. Year 2, you look for progress. Now we need a signature win to carry over into a breakout season. Maybe they can both happen in the same year (for instance we beat Michigan to go 5-0, then use that momentum to beat NW, Ind and another team or two to get to 8 or 9 wins). But for now I'm just looking for the program to take the next step.
Talent is better, depth is better, athleticism is improved, strength is stronger and this team is much more disciplined and confident. Things have to come together for just one game. One game with limited mistakes and taking advantage of the mistakes made by your opponent. It can happen, but will we see it in 2013?