Greetings to one and all in the Golden Gopher community. The late spring and early summer portion of the collegiate athletic schedule is upon us. Sadly, since we lack the enthusiasm in the Big Ten for baseball that, say, the Big 12 and SEC have, it is a rather slow time as far as actual competition is concerned. Sure, we're seemingly gaining an in-state football recruit every minute and the home city of our beloved Golden Gophers is vying to bring the most important college football game of the year to its shiny soon-to-be-built facility. But we have truly hit a lull that cannot be denied. Things have slowed down...cooled off, if you will. Besides the impending summer months, we have a powerful option to forestall this unfortunate off-season cold snap in our Gopher sporting world...
You might be asking yourself, why would TDG stoop to using #TAKES? Don't we usually pride ourselves in our ability to maintain reason and sound judgement? Those are good questions! The goal of this post (and others to follow) is not to launch completely incendiary nonsense towards our readers.
The #HOTTAKES presented in this feature will recognize the existence of reality (i.e. no "Richard Pitino should be fired immediately" or "Minnesota will go undefeated") but I'll generally use opinion and observation to defend my point instead of statistical proof. Why? Because proof means something isn't a #HOTTAKE...we have a bit to maintain here folks. So without further delay, please enjoy the first edition of:
#HOTTAKE: The Minnesota Golden Gophers will win the Big Ten West in 2015
The average Big Ten fan or media member wouldn't say this. The more dismissive among them would see it as lunacy. At best you'd see the more optimistic among the pundit/non-Gopher fan classes using words like "dark horse" to describe Minnesota's chances. I say leave the qualifiers behind. As we all know, predicting sports isn't an exact science and the people paid to make sports predictions are generally pretty horrendous at it. So I feel no shame of bias or lack of credibility by saying that the Gophers WILL be in Indianapolis to take on the Buckeyes (BONUS #HOTTAKE!!!.. but not really, the Buckeyes should really be a lock to win the East) on December 5th in the Big Ten Championship. Here is my Faulkner-esque stream-of-consciousness on why this is the case.
Jerry Kill has completely resurrected the dormant Minnesota football program. Fan enthusiasm is at an all-time high for the 21st Century. The recruits are rolling in the front door, eager to play for a man who has worked his tail off every step of the way and not only practiced what he preached but provided tried and true results. We can all recite the numbers easily now. 3 wins. 6 wins. 8 wins. 8 wins. The improvement is evident in the advanced statistics. It's evident in the eye test. It's evident in the results against quality opponents. For every TCU game, there was a win in Lincoln. For every step backwards (Illinois) there were lessons to be learned (stop assuming you can beat bad teams by showing up) and games to be won (Iowa curbstomping FTW). All of these things may be true, but they won't directly contribute to the success of the 2015 Golden Gophers.
However, these things do set the stage for further program improvement. The Gophers are easily more athletic at every spot in the 2-deep than they were four years ago. While they have lost some incredibly talented individuals to graduation and, in Maxx's case, the draft, there is now enough talent on the roster to avoid collapse at a given position just because a skilled individual leaves. Simply put, our depth has greatly improved.
Let's break the #TAKE down a little more. What has to happen to make me right?
It means the Gopher will probably have to accumulate at least a 6-2 conference record, with one of the wins being against the hated Wisconsin Badgers. Wisconsin has to visit Maryland, Nebraska, and Minnesota in 2015. Three difficult games for a program that will also be in their first year under new head coach Paul Chryst and I think they lose two of them. Based on preseason expectations and overall roster turnover, it's safe to say that the Battle for Paul Bunyan's Axe on November 28th will have divisional championship implications as it did last year.
It means the Gophers will have also to win the games they are "supposed" to win. This includes home games against Illinois and the Michigan Fighting Harbaughs on All Hallows Eve (yes, I just declared Michigan a "should win" game). It includes road wins against Northwestern and Purdue.
Because Minnesota has to visit the Horseshoe on November 7th, the room for error will be small. I'm not crazy. I'm 99.99% sure the Gophers won't go into the Shoe and defeat the defending national champions. A loss to Ohio State means the Gophers won't be able to drop any of the aforementioned "should win" games. What does that leave? At least one more Quadrangle of Hate victory over either Nebraska or Iowa.
Proving me right means that the Gophers will have to avoid catastrophic injury to key personnel. The defense isn't necessarily tied to the success and domination of just one player (ex: 2013 season and Ra'Shede Hageman). That said, if Eric Murray or Briean Boddy-Calhoun goes down it would definitely put a dent in the incredibly skilled secondary that the Gophers will be relying upon. If Mitch Leidner were to miss time, I personally believe the drop off between him and the next man up might be too much to overcome against some of the more talented teams in the conference. Injury luck will need to favor the Gophers.
Prognosticating this far out is a fool's errand. Which is fine, because I've been called worse. But in this case, it seems that Minnesota has gained a lot of momentum compared to its divisional counterparts. Just the lack of staff turnover compared to two of the other top teams in the division, Nebraska and Wisconsin, give the Gophers a built in advantage right off the bat. Iowa and Northwestern are wildcards, make no mistake. But it wouldn't be a #HotTake without a little bit of assumption and reach.
The 2015 Minnesota Golden Gophers will win the Big Ten West. It won't be easy. They won't blow out anybody. They won't do it averaging 51 points a game or anything. But they will continue to impose Jerry Kill's will on their opponents. They will continue to use a massive offensive line to grind opponents to a pulp in the running game. They will use a running back by committee approach to keep bodies fresh and the chains moving. They will use a secondary with loads of talent and experience to help a younger defensive line. They will use a new-found home field advantage (11-3 the last two years) to its fullest extent.
This #HotTake may seem absurd to those who are still stuck on the idea of the Minnesota teams of years past. And it may seem absurd to those who read this blog with tempered expectations. But I'm not stating the Gophers are national championship contenders or even BCS material. I'm merely saying that compared to their divisional opponents, Minnesota is no longer a doormat. Minnesota is a legitimate threat. And they will take a trip to Indianapolis in December.