Holy moly what a college football weekend! Minnesota was off this week, but I can say with confidence the Gophers "won the bye" as the B1G West division now appears more wide open than ever. Nebraska remains the class of the division, but Minnesota has a legitimate shot to win this. Of course, they're not the only ones...
FIVE TEAMS HAVE A CHANCE TO WIN THE B1G WEST- AND THE GOPHERS ARE ONE OF THEM
There is likely not an elite team in the West this season as Nebraska showed by getting pretty well handled vs Michigan State. Or as Wisconsin showed by losing to jNW. Or as Iowa has shown all season. Minnesota has every right to look at the remaining schedule and believe they have a chance to go to Indy in December to play
the B1G East champ Michigan State for the right to go to the Rose Bowl. Already 0-2, having lost their starting QB Wes Lunt to injury and just because they're Illinois, the Illini and the team that just beat them- Purdue!- have a slightly higher than non-zero chance of winning the West. The other five have every reason to believe they're in this, and that definitely includes the Golden Gophers. I would argue the West champ won't lose more than two B1G games, though with the level of play we've seen, it could even be three. Still, even if we chalk up the early November game to Ohio State as a loss (with a frosh QB and a loaded roster it's pretty likely they'll just get better as the season rolls along), the Gophers can still lose one more somewhere along the way and still be right there.
They should be favored in at least their next three games- jNW, Purdue and @ LO(I)Llinois- before the November of death strikes: Iowa, OSU, @ Nebraska and @ Wisconsin. At the moment both the Iowa and Wisconsin games looks much more winnable than before the season started and honestly if I can chose which two November games the Gophers win those are the two I want 100 times out of 100, every day all day. Of course a lot can and will happen in the month of October, and we could have different opinions of this division in just four weeks time. Maybe Iowa finally figures out their running game and offense, Wisconsin find a QB who can throw, Nebraska's offense rolls over every defense that is not the best in the conference, and jNW just might be for real.
Still, when this season started even in my wildest dreams I didn't think Minnesota would be starting at October, staring at a legitimate shot to win the division. And yet here we are.
HOW WELL THE GOPHERS DO WILL DEPEND UPON THE OFFENSE
At this point in the Jerry Kill Era we can count on the defense and special teams being solid- at worst- week in and week out. The offense? How consistent they are will decide whether the Gophers barely get bowl eligible or challenge for the B1G West Division. Seven games left, all against the B1G, with six of those seven divisional games. I would argue every remaining game with the exception of OSU at home (and perhaps Nebraska in Lincoln) look winnable based on how Minnesota played vs Michigan and how everyone else has played this season. But the question is this: can we expect the offense to show up like they did vs Michigan each and every week? That offensive gameplan and performance was completely different from anything we had seen out of OC Matt Limegrover's offense the previous four games. Did the light switch finally go on, or was this lightning in a bottle? Has QB Mitch Leidner found his confidence, and is he healthy enough to keep it?
We saw something similar to this last season as the Gophers didn't/couldn't throw during the non-con then flat out stunk vs Iowa and Michigan. All of us (fine, certainly me) started wondering if we'd win any B1G games based on what we had seen. Of course, that started the four game B1G winning streak and an eight win season. However, the offensive performance was great in only two of those games; the upset of Nebraska that everyone remembers, and the shoot-out win over Indiana that not enough people seem to bring up. As night-and-day different as the Nebraska game plan was from their first six games with all the shi(f)ts and motions, successful run game and actual pass completions, the win over IU may have been even crazier considering the now departed Philip Nelson threw for 298 yards and four TDs, as the offense finished with an incredible 576 total yards!
Before the win over Michigan those were the two best offensive performances of the Kill/Limegrover Era, and that's the thing: the following week victory over Penn State saw an offense that was solid and good enough and efficient to win, and then things went in the tank for the last three games of 2013, and the first four of 2014. What happened to all of that creativity and well-rounded production? Why did the passing game disappear, and the running game get so vanilla? Should we worry this will happen again? Was the Michigan win a sign of things to come, or just a blip of goodness on the radar of frustration that will be the offense the rest of the season?
With the defense and special teams the Gophers have, regardless of what the offense does they can find two more wins this season (I'm looking at you Purdue and LO(I)Llinois), and depending on what happens with Iowa's offense, maybe three. But with the way jNW is playing, plus that tough slate of November games, Minnesota needs a productive offense if they're serious about taking the next step towards competing for the division and improving on last season's four B1G victories. Granted, TCU really might be one of the best teams in the country, but we saw what happened when the offense couldn't produce and turned the ball over, as it put the D and special teams behind the entire afternoon. There's teams on the remaining schedule that will be too good for the Gophers to overcome a bad offensive performance to win.
We don't need to see 576 yards every week like we got vs Indiana, but the blueprint for success is the win over Michigan or even last year's victory over Penn State- a power running game that chews up yardage and opens up a passing game that can actually complete some passes, keep the defense honest, and move the chains when it needs to. With as good of a defense and special teams as Minnesota has, they don't need Limey's offense to be the best in the conference, but they're going to need them to be solid if they want to improve upon last year.
MITCH LEIDNER'S HEALTH MAY BE AS IMPORTANT AS THE PLAY-CALLING
Mitch wasn't 100% in Ann Arbor, and he may not be the rest of the year with turf toe and knee issues. But Limey put him in positions to succeed and Mitch took advantage. If his body holds up and this week of rest did its job, the QB position should be just fine. I'm not saying Mitch will be an all-B1G QB the rest of the way, or even close, but if he just make the right decisions on the read-option, and make quick, confident decisions when he's asked to- or has to- throw, Minnesota will be in every game the rest of the year.
If something happens to Leidner again, I have a lot more confidence in backup Chris Streveler, but we still have no clue if the kid can throw. Mitch at least showed he can make plays and complete passes when he needs to, so if David Cobb and the running game can be as dangerous as they were vs the Wolverines, it's going to make life for Mitch that much easier and that much better. If he's anywhere close to 100% the rest of the way then Kill and Limegrover may have finally found themselves a quarterback.
SOOOO THE NORTHWESTERN GAME JUST GOT A LOT MORE INTERESTING
Though I'm not sure in a good way. The media darlings to begin the 2013 season, the Wildcats won just five total games (and just one in conference) thanks to a rash of injuries and terrible luck. Then their top player RB Venric Mark transferred right before the season, arguably their best receiver was lost for the season to a knee injury and THEN they dropped their first two games of this season to "lowly" Cal (1-11 last year and 0-9 on the Pac 12) and Northern Illinois while barely beat 1-AA Western Illinois (Leathernecks!) in week 3. "Just Northwestern" were finally living up to their name and we could all go back to overlooking them, right?
Well then the last two weeks happened with back-to-back upsets of Penn State in Happy Valley, then Wisconsin at home in front of tens of Wildcats fans at Ryan Field. You could poke holes in both victories if you like: jNW thoroughly whipped Penn State, though the Nits O-line is dreadful, and they just may not be that good outside of QB Christian Hackenberg. Wisconsin outgained the Cats 422-385, including 285 rushing at 7.7 YPC but BADger QBs threw a whopping FOUR picks while jNW didn't turn the ball over. If Wisconsin just stops shooting themselves in the foot, they probably win that game.
But take jNW lightly at your own peril- the darkhorse B1G title contender people expected last year might have just been a year off, as the Wildcats are finding their offense and defense at just the right time. Oh, and that season opening loss to Cal that looked so bad at the time? The Bears are 4-1 and currently lead the wild Pac 12 North, so that one is looking better and better
every for this week at least (Edit: wait, you're not impressed by Cal's other wins over 1-AA Sacramento State and beating Pac12 cellar dwellers Wazzu and Colorado by three total points? Fine, maybe I should have pointed this out in the original posting) The Cats just might be legit (maybe?), and thank goodness the Gophers have the extra week to prepare.
THE BYE CAME AT THE ABSOLUTE RIGHT TIME
Had the Gophers had to play jNW last week coming off the emotional high of kicking the bejeezus out of Michigan, we very well could have seen the same loss that Wisconsin just took. No matter how much Coach Kill and Co could tell their players not to over look jNW, a let down would have been almost inevitable.
Now, with a full two weeks to prepare AND having watched them just beat Wisconsin, Coach Kill and his staff won't have to say one word about not overlooking Northwestern on Saturday. The highs of winning The Jug should be behind them, and back-to-back wins over Penn State and Sconnie will have everybody's attention. Oh, and obviously with the Gophs as banged up as they are, the bye also came at a great time to help everybody get healthy (or at least closer to it). The Gophers are 3 point favorites as of this morning, which means with the usual home-field three point advantage teams always get, Vegas thinks this game is basically a toss-up. I don't disagree and while I like Minnesota's chances, keep in mind they haven't beaten jNW in Minneapolis since 2004. Yes, that spans three different coaching staffs, this looks like Kill's best team yet AND the Gophers beat NW in not-Chicago last year, but crazy/bad things still seem to happen vs Northwestern no matter where the two programs are at. Thanks to the bye, and Northwestern's upset of Wisconsin, we know this game will have the players's full attention, and those players will be rested and hopefully much closer to full health.
THAT LOSS TO TCU IS ALREADY LOOKING BETTER, ISN'T IT?
Crazy game in Dallas with the Horned Frogs pulling off the upset of 4th ranked OU. TCU went toe-to-toe with a team considered the favorite to represent the Big 12 in the new playoff, and outplayed them. Their new Air-Raid offense that put up 30 points on the Gophers racked up 469 total yards with 318 passing at 8.2 per pass vs the Sooners. Yes, those are actually better numbers than what Minnesota allowed, though considering TCU was up big at the half in the win over the Gophs, we likely didn't see the full aresenal in the second half. Still, it shows that Minnesota's D really is legit, and so is TCU's shiny new offense. Their defense did the usual Gary Patterson things by holding their own and forcing two key turnovers. With the win TCU jumps from 25 to 9th in the polls, and sets up The Game of The Year in the Big XII this weekend in Waco as #5 and undefeated Baylor hosts #9 and undefeated TCU.
The more TCU wins, the better Minnesota's profile when it comes to bowl eligiblity and selection. Yes, Minnesota's lack of history traveling still likely hurts them if they're compared to one of the Hordes of the B1G, but with the new selection idea where the B1G wants to create more attractive matchups and avoid sending schools to repeat bowl, the more both TCU and the Gophers win from here on out, the better it makes Minnesota look to the bowls. We should all be Horned Frog fans the rest of the way.
WHAT IF THERE ARE NO ELITE TEAMS THIS YEAR?
We'll finish up with an absolutely nuts college football weekend. As you no doubt know by now, it's the first time ever that four of the top six ranked teams all lost in the same weekend, and the new poll looks so wrong it's right: FSU and Auburn at the top, and then- wait Ole Miss AND Mississippi State tied for THIRD?!? Baylor fifth? TCU 9th? Arizona 10th? The first season of the new College Football Playoff might be the craziest in years. We've just started October and are already down to just nine undefeated teams in the Top 25 and only two of them- #10 Arizona and #22 Georgia Tech- don't play another undefeated. RichRod has fielded top 10 teams before when he was coaching at WVU (anyone know where he coached between the Mountaineers and Arizona? I didn't hear anything about it at all this weekend), so there's every reason to take this U of A team seriously. Then again, the Pac 12 is not only loaded with good teams but they play nine conference games PLUS the conference title game, so best of luck getting out of that undefeated.
The Ramblin' Wreck have already played and won three of their toughest games beating Georgia Southern (just ask Florida), Va Tech and Miami, and may not see another ranked team until the end of the year when they close with Clemson and Georgia (fine, maybe Virginia is for real. Maybe). But I need to see a lot more from Tech before I believe they're a playoff contender.
The teams at the top of the standings are likeliest to be "Elite" teams, as FSU are the defending champs with the reigning Heisman winner and an absolutely loaded roster, yet they haven't yet looked like the dominant force of nature that rolled through college football a season ago. It may not matter as at the moment their only remaining ranked opponent is #6 and undefeated Notre Dame who they'll get in Tallahasse, and you'll have to forgive me if I don't believe the Irish are one of the six best teams in college football. So FSU SHOULD be a lock for the top 4, that is if they can avoid the upset bug that has gotten just about everybody else.
The team they played in the natty title in Auburn is back up to #2 and in my humble opinion has been the best team in the land through their first five games. But remember how we said Arizona had a tough go in the Pac 12? Well as good as the Tigers are, they're chances of remaining undefeated are likely even longer as an incredible FIVE of their remaining seven games are against opponents currently ranked in the top 14. I have zero doubt the SEC champ will get one of the playoff bids, but I'd wager Ga Tech or Arizona has a better chance of going undefeated than Auburn does because of how ridiculously deep the SEC, and especially the West, is this year.
i know Matt's models LOVE Baylor, and maybe this weekend's Bears/TCU winner runs the table in the Big 12 and turns into a juggernaut, but it looks like we'll be lucky to have more than two undefeateds when the playoff begins. That means the arguments over who three and four should be will be much louder- and let's be honest, better- than any arguments that were ever had about who got left out of the old BCS model.
Oh, and if you're a fan of the B1G, that means the champ of this conference (likely as long as it's a 1-loss Michigan State) isn't out of the running yet either. It's only October, but coming out of the bye week this has the potential to be a very fun season for both the Gophers and the sport in general.