There has been talk this offseason that the Golden Gophers are actually going to be contenders for the West Division of the Big Ten. This is more than just message board chatter from delusional Gopher fans but actually some national media folks who think the Gophers are clearly in the conversation...if not the hipster pick for 2015.
Are we legitimately in the conversation to finish above Wisconsin, Nebraska and our other West-mates? Could Gopher Nation be booking rooms in Indy for December 5th? The answer is...absolutely we are in the conversation. We were, after-all, playing on the final Saturday of the season with a trip to Indy on the line. This year we host Wisconsin on the final weekend and there is a good chance it is going to have the same type of ramifications attached to that game again.
Lets take a look at the path to the Big Ten West title. Wisconsin, Nebraska and Minnesota are the consensus teams with the best shot at finishing atop. Could Iowa or Northwestern earn the trip to Indy (apologies to Purdue and Illinois but I just don't thinks so)? Sure they could, the West is fairly open, but I'm going to focus today's efforts on the three more likely contenders.
There are commonalities of replacing very talented ball-carriers and returning quarterbacks (for better or worse) on offense. And two of the three teams figuring things out under new coaches. So what will separate these teams?
Partly by program philosophy & design, partially due to coincidence but the Badgers and the Gophers have quite a few similarities this year. Both have excellent secondaries to anchor their defenses, both are replacing an excellent running back, both are returning a quarterback with questions marks, both have questions at linebacker and both are solid along the offensive/defensive lines.
While the Badgers are the favorite, the gap is closing between them and the rest of the west (at least I'd like to think so). In their favor is the Big Ten schedule makers who gave the Badgers cross-divisional games with Rutgers and Maryland. No Ohio State, Michigan State, Penn State or Michigan on their schedule makes for a much easier path to Indy. They are returning their quarterback and a solid core of what was a very good defense. Yes, Melvin Gordon is gone to the NFL but Corey Clement is also very talented and expects to be one of the top RBs in the Big Ten. Drop off? Not going to be much.
So why do I feel there is a chance the Gophers can jump the Badgers in the standings? There is usually an adjustment following a coaching change, even if that coach is formerly familiar with the system and expectations of the program. Paul Chryst steps into a good situation, the program is going to be familiar to him and there will not be any significant changes to philosophy on either side of the ball. But there will be adjustments and maybe that will play out on the field.
The Badgers are clearly the division favorites. They could very easily be coming to TCF Bank Stadium on the final Saturday of the season with an undefeated Big Ten record. Trips to Nebraska and Maryland appear to be the most likely impediments to a 7-0 record before the battle for The Axe. Strange things have and likely will happen (like running into elite rush defenses) so 7-0 is not a guarantee by any stretch of the imagination. But they are a talented team with a very favorable schedule and are the defending champs...impossible to not consider them the favorites.
But the Gophers are not out of the picture. If we look at the schedule we have some things going for us and against us. Unfortunately we have to face Ohio State, at Ohio State. I really like what the Gophers have going and am excited to see improvement this year, but Ohio State has not lost a Big Ten game since 2011. They are the defending national champs, the face Minnesota at home, and they are going to be huge favorites. In fact they even get a bye week leading up to that game to rest and prepare. The other cross over game? Michigan. Michigan may not be the team its fans want it to be right now but there are plenty of talented kids on that roster. They were a mess last year but I expect they'll be improved. All of this is to say that the Big Ten was not kind to us in regards to cross over scheduling in 2015.
Where we do get a little help is the fact that we get to host both Wisconsin and Nebraska (and Michigan for that matter). If these are the two teams we end up battling with to win the West, I would much rather face them on our own turf. In 2014 the Gophers traveled to both, also had to face Ohio State and had to travel to Michigan...yet we were in position to win the West on the final Saturday. I like this year's schedule better, I think we will be better and hopefully we will be in the same position as last year. It is important, when comparing us to Wisconsin, to note that we only have to be within one game heading into the Axe game.
Looking at the roster the Gophers have two pretty big questions, both on offense. Can they replace the production of David Cobb on the ground? And can the passing game improve enough to make the offense more balanced? Both are questions we are familiar with and concerned about as fans. Both need to be answered if the Gophers want to be playing in Indianapolis.
On the other side of the ball the Gophers should be very good. Arguably the best secondary in the conference and a good front seven that should be deeper than a year ago after several young guys got some valuable experience being thrown into the action a bit early. Defense should be outstanding and should be able to keep us in any game.
And the rarely mentioned special teams should also be outstanding. One of the best punters in the country, I expect a very solid kicking game and typically expect field position battles to be won by the Gophers. Jerry Kill's special teams are very underrated and will be huge if the Gophers are to be in the running for the West title.
Finally we get to the Cornhuskers. Certainly talented enough to be in the conversation but I think they are the third best team in the division. Schedule-wise they get some good with the bad. They get Rutgers in a cross-over game but have to face Michigan State who may be the second best team in the conference. Within the West Division they get to host the Badgers and travel to Minnesota. So no real major advantage/disadvantage here for Nebraska.
Coaching change rears it's head here as well but I think this one will have a greater impact than any other coaching change in the conference. Mike Riley may be a great coach and perfect fit for Husker Nation, but he is such a different coach from what was in Lincoln there is certain to be a sizeable adjustment. Different attitude, different style, different philosophies...all should take a while before Riley is able to get this program playing the way he wants them to play. It is entirely possible that his demeanor will be a welcome change and he gets his team playing together and inspired. But I'm not putting enough stock in this to see them leapfrog both Wisconsin and Minnesota in the standings.
Personnel-wise the Huskers have more key play-makers to replace than the two teams I'm placing ahead of them. Randall Gregory, Kenny Bell and Ameer Abduhlla were all very talented and no longer playing on Saturdays. No doubt this is a talented team with strong receivers, a good defensive line and also very good special teams. Nebraska could be making the trip to Indy but I think this team is more dangerous a year or two down the road.
HOW DOES IT PLAY OUT?
The winner of the division is going to be the one who doesn't stub their toe in a game they shouldn't. Lets not forget that Northwestern is a good team who beat the Badgers a year ago. Illinois is not a very good team but they managed to beat Minnesota and even make a bowl game. Iowa is never one you can count out and do we expect they'll go 0-3 against these three rivals of theirs? Purdue is...nevermind. Playing consistent football week-to-week, particularly when you believe you are facing a team you should beat, is what separates good teams from great teams.
I'd really like to see the Gophers sitting one game back of Wisconsin headed into Thanksgiving weekend. We host at our house and we put it all together to finally reclaim Paul Bunyan's Axe. Is it possible? That scenario is not out of the question or even silly to suggest. I see the Gophers dropping TCU to open the season, I see them losing at Ohio State and there is probably one game they drop on the road (likely Northwestern or Iowa). Wisconsin will also drop one along the way. Nebraska will be right there too but will lose to Minnesota again. This sets up the Axe Game to be for a trip to Indy again.
A trip to Indianapolis is there for the taking. Playing consistently week to week is the key.