While the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, real life has very few straight lines to offer. For the past few seasons, Gopher fans have enjoyed tangible progress in a program rebuild that had most fans seeing straight lines. Embarrassing non-conference losses disappeared and were replaced by bowl games. Rivalry trophies materialized next to the hardware memorializing 18 conference championship and 7 national championships. The team went from bad to respectable to dangerous in sequential steps, brick by brick.
Then 2015 happened. All that is missing from this year is for Ashton Kutccher jumping into frame on the next episode of Gopher Football with Tracy Caeys whilst donning his Sunday best Hawkeye trucker hat in order to complete the Punk'd level of trolling that has victimized Gopher Nation in 2015.
Fall practice brought report of dings before injuries decimated our TE position group in the lead up to our biggest home opener since the stadium was built. Next came the defensive backfield, quickly followed by the offensive line, who would soon be outdone by the defensive line. The only interruption of this succession of position groups meeting in the training room instead of the locker room came in the form of Jerry Kill's sudden and emotional retirement. Suddenly a run-first team, led by a highly respected coach, that leaned on a stout defense to win games was without its leader and could neither run nor play defense!
Without big moments from Shannon Brooks, Mitch Leidner, and KJ Maye, this team would have been hopeless. That would have been too easy, however. 2015 demanded that the team remain competitive enough to hang with Michigan, Ohio State, Iowa and Wisconsin on the scoreboard, but not be competent enough to execute a QB sneak or onside kick that would have given the team something to show for their efforts. it would have been easier to watch a team that had given up and was just playing out the schedule, but this team insisted on fighting to the end. Fans were left watching Mitch lean into an ocean of Wolverines on the half-yard line, wondering if a weird drop kick onside attempt could make Kirk's special season go pork belly up, and hoping that Wisconsin would pass instead of run despite anything to show Paul Chryst why he ever should.
What would be your answer if some sadistic Gopher fan presented all of 2015's painful moments and then asked, "What direction is this program going?" In the face of evidence to the contrary, this program is still heading in the right direction. Unfortunately this program's progression will not be a straight line. Despite an unmitigated backward step of a season, the Gophers are still trending upward, and here's why.
1) The defensive backfield is real and spectacular. Even throughout the injuries, the defensive backfield was never abused by opponents like the center of the defense was late in the year. While forced turnovers were certainly down, the scheme held solid even though the two-deeps were stretched thin. There's some concern about missed tackles that plagued even the best Gopher DBs late in the year, but Jay Sawvel has his unit prepared for success come hell or high water.
2) The talent at running back is legit. Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith have the talent to carry the load for this team for years to come. The young duo would be hard pressed to see fewer holes or worse blocking from future offensive lines, so I consider the running game to be trending upward sharply.
3) The roster is equipped to win now and win later. This roster is talented. Young talent pervades at wide receiver, running back, offensive line, quarterback, linebacker, and defensive back. Upperclassmen are set to lead at defensive line, quarterback, wide receiver, linebacker, and defensive back. Just like in life, a roster without health is a roster without much at all, but there is nothing to suggest that 2015 was anything but an aberration in that regard.Bowl game practices would be huge to get this roster up to speed in regards to revised expectations under Tracy Claeys.
4) Recruiting is better than ever. The Empire Class seems to be holding strong should continue to do so barring more turnover with the staff. The addition of Dan O'Brien to the staff should build on an already strong relationship with high school coaches in Minnesota, and the key identifiers of national talent continually prove they are able to bring in committed young men to play quality football in Minneapolis.
5) The schedule lightens up. In 2016, TCU, Ohio State, and Michigan are replaced by Oregon State, Penn State, Maryland, and Rutgers. In fact, Minnesota only plays the "Big 3" of the East Division a combined four times in the next four years. In comparison, Minnesota plays Indiana, Maryland, and Rutgers seven times in that same span. It's time to make hay.
I don't think there are many programs that could have this kind of year and yet see so many positives in the immediate, near, and distant future. There is no straight line to the top, but I'll still take Minnesota's trajectory over the vast majority of programs in collegiate football.