Bold predictions are a staple of college football preseason hoopla, so I've decided to partake. I scaled back the ridiculousness in favor of bold but realistic predictions. I realize some of you will question my definition of "realistic" after the first prediction, but bear with me.
4. Mitch Leidner will pass for more than 2,500 yards. The Gophers haven't had a 2,000-yard passer since Adam Weber graduated in 2010, but I think this is the year that drought ends. I'll even throw in an extra 500 yards. Please hold your laughter (or applause) until the end. Mitch Leidner has more than his fair share of critics and doubters on this site, but I believe we saw Leidner take the next step in the Citrus Bowl. Our intermediate passing game was a sight to behold that game, but Missouri was able to stifle our running game in the second half and the Gophers shot themselves in the foot with three fumbles. Let's not forget that Leidner was also under center for wins over Michigan, Iowa, and Nebraska. And you're not going to convince me that all three of those wins were accomplished in spite of his presence.
Maxx Williams leaves a gaping hole in the passing game, no question about it, but I think we have a receiving corps of untapped talent waiting to be better utilized. KJ Maye, after a strong finish last season, and a healthy Drew Wolitarsky will lead the pack, and I have to believe that Jeff Jones or one of our athletic redshirt freshmen wide receivers will emerge as a legit option. Look for Duke Anyanwu to step in for Williams as Leidner's top target at tight end after missing last season due to injury, with Lincoln Plsek, Brandon Lingen, Nate Wozniak, and Jerry Gibson all contenders for playing time, as well.
3. Hank Ekpe, not Thieren Cockran, will be our sack leader. Cockran led the team with 7.5 sacks in 2013, but then saw his sack total drop to 4 in 2014, presumably because he no longer had the benefit of Ra'shede Hageman at defensive tackle to draw double teams. I do expect Cockran to bounce back this season, but I also think he'll be upstaged by the man on the opposite end of the defensive line. Hampered by migraines all of last season, Ekpe was able to resolve those issues and emerge as one of the breakout players on defense in the spring. Coach Kill, who is not someone prone to hyperbole, even went so far as to compare Ekpe to Missouri's tandem of Shane Ray and Markus Golden from last season. And with his brother, Scott Ekpe, poised to replace Cameron Botticelli at defensive tackle, the Ekpes could be a force to be reckoned with this fall.
2. The Gophers will not have a 1,000 yard rusher. I know what you're thinking. Am I nuts? Do I not realize the Gophers are a run first, run second, think about throwing but maybe run third football team? I do realize that, but I'm not sold on the idea that our committee of running backs will produce a 1,000 yard rusher when all is said and done. With Rodrick Williams splitting carries with Berkley Edwards and Rodney Smith, the situation could resolve itself like it did when David Cobb took control of the position in 2013, but I think we'll see a lot more back-and-forth this season between the backs.
Williams dropped weight in the offseason and did well last season when called upon, but I don't feel confident enough to anoint him as the clear successor to Cobb. Edwards underwhelmed last season outside of the opener against Eastern Illinois, and Smith is an unknown aside from what coaches have said about him and what we saw in the spring. I think we'll have an effective running game -- we'll be in big trouble if we don't -- but I don't see a workhorse in the bunch, at least not yet.
1. The Gophers will re-claim Paul Bunyan's Axe. It has been more than a decade since the Gophers have held the Axe. But with the gap between the two teams now closer than ever, I believe this is the year that Gophers take down the Badgers and seize the Axe from their most hated border rivals. The Badgers will be good again, with Paul Chryst at the helm, less confusion at the quarterback position, and Corey Clement as a more than capable replacement for Melvin Gordon III. There are question marks on the offensive line and a few holes to fill on defense, but those are hardly indicators that Wisconsin will take a significant step back this season. It's not about the Badgers being down. I simply feel confident that the Gophers won't let this one slip through their fingers, especially at home at the end of the season. They've proved they're up to the task of competing with Wisconsin. Now it is time to turn the corner. I believe they'll get it done.