We're counting down the weeks until kickoff by profiling a different Big Ten team each week. We decided to switch up the order to reflect 11W's predicted finish for the upcoming season, which can be found here and we'll also reach out to fellow bloggers for their inside opinion on important matters.
This week we take a look at Tight End Tim's crew, as they enter a critical 3rd season with him at the helm.
For starters, they move into an open air park in TCF Bank Stadium and second, they have 17 starters and 54 lettermen back from a team that won 6 of their first 7, but lost their last 5.
COACHING: The pressure is on Brewster to keep up the momentum he built from last season, making him our pre-season choice for most likely to John L. Smith it. Even though he has a veteran team, he lost his DC to Auburn and fired his OC in an effort to move away from the spread. New defensive co-coordinators Ronnie Lee and Kevin Cosgrave have Wisconsin roots from the Alavarez era, while OC Jedd Fisch comes from the Broncos.
OFFENSE: With the opening of a non-dome in Minnesota, it was a good move to switch away from the spread attack. With the weather patterns in Minnesota, such an offense could have been disastrous in October and November.
Luckily for the Gophers, they have 9 starters coming back, including Adam Weber and Eric Decker, who form one of the best QB/WR tandems in the league. Weber lead the B10 in pass attempts last year with 410, completing 62 percent, while also scampering for 518 yards. Decker lead the conference in catches (84), yards (1074) and receiving TD's (7) in 2008, even though he had just 3 for 30 in their last 3 regular season games, but he might not have as many balls come his way with the change in philosophy.
The Gophers will have some depth in the backfield and at the receiver position. Redshirt sophomore Duane Bennett, who tore his ACL in game 2 last year, will battle true sophomore's DeLeon Eskridge and Shady Salamon for the starting position. Eskridge lead the team with 714 rushing yards and 7 rushing touchdowns, while Salamon contributed another 193. If 100% healthy, Bennett should have the slight edge, but a three-headed monster could help the Gophers control the clock in those late season games, which would be a welcomed change in Minneapolis.
As mentioned, Weber will have a few more consistent weapons to choose from on the outside and freshman QB MarQueis Gray could see some action to spice things up. Hayo Carpenter is a JUCO recruit that will come in right away and challenge for a starting gig, while sophomore Brandon Greene showed some flashes in Decker's absence. Senior Ben Kuzina, who was third on the team in catches last season, also returns.
The Gophers had to use 10 different starting linemen in 2008 and 9 of those guys return this year. The starting spots may not be solidified until closer to week 1, as coaches figure out what the best combination is for the new power running scheme. But Brewster should be able to run a couple of different lines in there throughout the campaign.
For as long as I can remember, defense has always been a question mark for Minnesota, but that could change this season. The 2009 version returns 8 starters, 17 of their top 21 tacklers and should feature 9 seniors in the starting lineup.
Even though the D-Line may have 4 seniors in the starting group, those 4 accounted for just 8 sacks last year and could be the weak link. DT's Eric Small and Garrett Brown each weigh close to 300 lbs. and could demand a few double teams. DE's Cedric McKinley and Derrick Onwuachi still have to prove they are worthy of beating out the younger talent.
The Gophers will have a solid back 7, including top tacklers from last year; MLB Lee Campbell, S Kyle Theret and S Tramaine Brock. Campbell will be flanked by senior Simoni Lawrence, who lead the team in TFL's (6.5) and tied for the lead in sacks with 4. The other backer spot is up for grabs and could be manned by redshirt freshman Keanon Cooper or true frosh Spencer Reeves.
Senior corner, Traye Simmons lead the B10 in passes defended last year with 18, while his fellow senior Marcus Sherels chipped in with 13 of his own. Both are back, looking to improve upon the 240 yards per game passing the Gophers gave up in 2008.
KEY GAME: It's a tricky schedule for the Gophers, starting the season at Syracuse and home against Air Force, both winnable games, but then California comes in Sept. 19th and if the Gophers happen to slip in the first 2, this becomes even more crucial. The Bears are getting some early top 10 consideration and an upset win in the new stadium could catapult the Gophers into another fast start.
BEST-CASE: If the Gophers can pull off the first 3, they then play at Northwestern and host Whisky and Purdue, so a 6-0 or 5-1 start could happen. But then there are consecutive road games in Happy Valley and Columbus, followed by home tilts at home with MSU and Illinois. We think Minnesota has the best chance of breaking into the top tier of the conference, which is going to take at least an 8-4 record.
WORST-CASE: Luckily there is finally some depth for Brewster, if they are hit by injuries again. However, I don't think this schedule sets up very well, especially breaking in new coordinators on both sides of the ball. The Gophers don't have a pushover until the 11th game of the season when South Dakota St. comes to town and Brewster has yet to prove he can close out a season. A 4-3 start heading into the PSU game could lead to another missed bowl game and a 5-7 finish.
Minnesota is going to be one of the more interesting story lines of the upcoming season, simply because you really don't know which way they will go. Their coach is still unproven, loves him some Twitter and is most likely to blow up, but there is some talent and if they can pull off a couple of November wins, they can continue the momentum started last year.