According to my calculations, it has been 247 days since Mitch Leidner was dabbing in endzone at Ford Field in the Quick Lane Bowl.
The Minnesota Golden Gophers haven't taken the field in approximately 21,340,800 seconds. But worry not Gopher Nation, for the end is upon us. Soon, the marching band will be swinging open those gates, 55,000 strong will be yelling "Ski-U-Mah" and the memories of an injury-torn, adversity filled year can finally be put to bed in the wake of a fresh new season. Every team is undefeated and the possibilities are endless in the minds of every team's faithful fan base.
In the spirit of that beginning of the year enthusiasm, I have compiled a list of 10 (sometimes speculative and overly optimistic) reasons to get excited for the 2016 edition of Golden Gopher football. So without further ado, let's begin!
10. Shannon Brooks doing Shannon Brooks Things
This run was a thing of beauty. I know that Brooks is starting the year off injured but if he can come back at the beginning of conference play at full strength, I'd love to see what an off season in the strength and conditioning program has done to make him even more of a monster in his sophomore season.
9. Rashad Still Becoming the Go-To Receiver We Haven't Seen Since Eric Decker
Still had six catches for 41 yards and a touchdown against Ohio State and two catches for 69 yards and a touchdown against Michigan. Sure, those numbers aren't that impressive but consider that Minnesota's offensive line was over-matched, and Still was playing as a true freshman against the 8th and 2nd, respectively, ranked defenses in the nation and there is reason I posted the clip above. I've got my money on him having a breakout sophomore season and turning into a threat for double digit receptions and 100-yard games on any given Saturday.
8. The Return of Damarius Travis
Travis was a beast in 2014, tallying 61 tackles, 3.5 TFLs, five pass break ups, two interceptions, one forced fumble, and one recovered fumble. Big things were expected of him in 2015. Unfortunately, his season came to an abrupt halt in the first game against TCU. Luckily, the NCAA did the right thing by granting a medical hardship waiver and now Travis returns to lead a rather inexperienced secondary. He's going to be all over the field stuff the box scores and making plays on his way to becoming another Gopher secondary alumni drafted into the NFL.
7. A Reinvigorated Offensive Line
Much has been discussed about the lack of depth on the offensive line for this team coming into 2016. While this remains true, the addition of Bart Miller as offensive line coach has brought about the hope of change in the mentality and on-field performance of the most essential offensive group. Miller seems to favor physicality and a nasty streak and with senior Jonah Pirsig and true sophomore Tyler Moore leading the way, there's no doubt the line will be looking to maul opposing defenses.
6. The Senior Season of Jack Lynn: The Masked Menace
Lynn had a thoroughly enjoyable season from a statistical standpoint, being named All-Conference Honorable Mention. The enjoyment was only compound by the skull-esque balaclava-like garment he sported during colder games. Seeing Lynn flying around from the second level of the defense during Saturday fall afternoons has me all in a tizzy.
5. Taking Advantage of a Fortuitous Schedule
Last year, the Gophers played the 5th hardest schedule in the nation according to S&P+. The likes of TCU, Michigan, Ohio State, and Iowa, just to name a few, created a daunting gauntlet of games few teams could match. However, in 2016, the schedule has turned in the Gophers favor. Challenging conference road games include at Penn State, Nebraska, and Wisconsin but the rest of the schedule gives the Gophers a chance to rack up the wins. Even in those aforementioned contests, Gopher fans have to believe that a win, though not probable, is at least within the realm of possibility. If Minnesota can find a way to steal a road game (or three) in conference play, a double digit regular season win total is within the grasp of the Dinkytown faithful for the first time in modern program history.
4. Fall Saturdays at The Bank
Nothing beats swinging the gates open, shouting the Rouser at the top of your lungs, enjoying a Dilly Bar with Dilly Bar Dan, and "doing the Gopher" with 55,000 of your closest maroon and gold-clad friends. The Bank won't necessarily see many "marquee" opponents outside of Iowa but you can be sure that if the wins start to accumulate, we may just see a home field advantage begin to manifest itself on campus. With greater success comes greater crowds and the late season contest with Northwestern could be of the utmost importance if the season has succeeded the way we hope it might.
3. Ryan Santoso's Golden Leg
There are few things more beautiful in college football than Santoso launching rockets through the crisp fall air and floating gently through the uprights. Though he is listed as the team's punter on the depth chart, we know that he will come into the game for the long field goal attempts that may make or break a few games this season. It's hard not to imagine another Purdue-esque moment for Santoso this year, with hopefully more on the line than just saving face against a Boilermaker squad.
2. Mitch Leidner Becoming the NFL 1st Round Draft Pick He Was "Destined" to Be
Much has been made about Mitch Leidner after Todd McShay posted a way-too-early draft projection listing Leidner as a possible 1st Round pick. He's been consistently, and unnecessarily I might add, lambasted at Off Tackle Empire (and other outlets) for his perceived short comings. Is Mitch's arm of the same ilk of Peyton Manning? No. Are his legs of the same ilk of Eric Crouch? No. Is he a third year starter with the potential to have a better showing now that he isn't playing with a mangled foot and behind a timid offensive line? Yes. When given time and competent options, Leidner has shown he is fully capable of being a quarterback that can succeed for a team that runs the ball more than it throws it. If Leidner can up his completion percentage into the 65% range and give the Gophers a chance to win games late, he may just have done enough to warrant the "hype" he received at the beginning of the season. And since I'm sporting the maroon-colored glasses, I say he will do just that.
1. Minnesota Golden Gopher Football and the Chance to Redeem Ourselves from 2015
Need I say more? The 2015 season was marred by massive amounts of injuries, an extremely challenging schedule, and the resignation of head coach Jerry Kill due to medical hardships. It was a tumultuous season full of set backs and missed opportunities (TCU and Michigan anyone?). It was a season most of us would rather forget. The best thing about the 2016 season starting is that we can finally put all of that tumult and disappointment behind us and live in a world where 12-0 is technically still a mathematical possibility, the two-deep hasn't been decimated by injuries (yet...gulp) and the coaching staff is not being changed in the middle of the season. It is a season full of possibilities and intrigue. A season where the Gophers return most of their skills positions and enough on the defense to give them a fighting chance in every game on our schedule. A season where Minnesota can attempt to reclaim some items that are rightfully theirs: the Pig, the Chair, and the Axe. A season where just about anything seems possible.