Minnesota Golden Gophers football preview 2013: Best case, worst case, prediction

Photo: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Photo: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Minnesota enters 2013 with optimism stemming from two factors. The first is the Gophers made a bowl for the first time under Jerry Kill and the second is that over the course of his career, Kill-coached teams have enjoyed a big leap from Year 2 to Year 3. That’s nice but here are the facts. Returning starter at quarterback, Phillip Nelson, finished with a completion percentage of just 48.7 and finished with the same number of INTs as TDs (eight) in his freshman year. I’ll pass on that, thanks.

Donell Kirkwood gets some buzz as a good running back. However, he failed to hit 1,000 yards, averaged barely four yards a carry and scored just six TDs. Hmm, that doesn’t bode well.

The Gophers were 96th in scoring last year and 45th in points allowed. The individual splits found Minny’s “D” giving up two more points per game than the offense scored. Not good. Worse, their best wideout in A.J. Barker is gone and their biggest play threat in MarQueis Gray has graduated out. Compounding this lackluster effort is the fact that Minnesota barely made a bowl during one of the worst seasons the Big Ten has seen in terms of overall talent in the league in a long, long time. With Michigan, Northwestern, Nebraska, Penn State, Wisconsin and Michigan State all looking strong, Iowa poised for a bounce back and Indiana improved (to wit – these are all teams on Minnesota’s slate) the road to a repeat postseason appearance looks very long for the Gophers.

2013 Schedule:

UNLV: 2-11 (2-6) – Mountain West

Best Case: Remember that triple OT thriller Minnesota won in Las Vegas last year? Neither do I. 1-0

Worst Case: Boy it’s tempting to pick UNLV as an upset, but since the Rebs I just can’t pull that trigger. 1-0

Prediction: UNLV was woeful (again) last season and expected to duplicate their poor results once more. Ski-U-Mah! W: 28-10, 1-0

At New Mexico State: 1-11 (0-6) – WAC

Best Case: One of the sad stories of the musical chairs, NMSU is an independent this year after the WAC folded as a football league. 2-0

Worst Case: This club was 114th in scoring per game and 120th in points allowed. Rough. 2-0

Prediction: I hope the Aggies do themselves proud and win some games this year but the chances of that look pretty long. W: 42-10, 2-0

Western Illinois: 3-8 (1-7) – Missouri Valley (FCS)

Best Case: One of WIU’s few wins last year came against D-2 Indianapolis. 3-0

Worst Case: Odds of WIU pulling this off are quite low, even if Minnesota takes a step back this year. 3-0

Prediction: Quick and dirty … W: 49-14, 3-0

San Jose State: 11-2 (5-1) – WAC

Best Case: By far the toughest test of the non-con, Minnesota looks good in its final tune-up and gets some confidence heading into the Floyd of Rosedale game. 4-0

Worst Case: Pass-happy SJSU returns David Fales. The Spartans leader is looking to build on a 4,193 yard debut in 2012, a year which included with 33 scores compared to only nine picks. He could carve up the Gophs. 3-1

Prediction: Tough to get a read on how much Mike MacIntyre’s departure to Colorado will affect the Spartans. I’ll take the more sure thing with Minnesota. W: 34-28, 4-0

Iowa: 4-8 (2-6) – Big Ten

Best Case: After losing a sloppy contest last season, the 2013 squad remembers to hold onto the pigskin in order to take down the Hawks. 5-0

Worst Case: Coach Kirk Ferentz’s squad looked its best against Minnesota a season ago. Uh-oh. 3-2

Prediction: Iowa shredded the Gophers with the running game a year ago. Assuming the offensive line and the running backs don’t all get hurt (again), then Iowa will be able to move the rock against Minnesota. L: 24-13, 4-1 (0-1)

At Michigan: 8-5 (6-2) – Big Ten

Best Case: Minnesota keeps it close, but in the end the gap in talent costs them the game. 5-1

Worst Case: UM won this 35-13 a year ago. Yikes. 3-3

Prediction: Minnesota won two games on the road last year, but they were against two teams that went a combined 4-21 last season – and not named Michigan. Brutal. L: 35-14, 4-2 (0-2)

At Northwestern: 10-3 (5-3)

Best Case: NU will be able to score in droves this season. Minnesota won’t be able to keep up in a track meet-style game. 5-2

Worst Case: Minnesota’s overall lack of depth and talent costs them another league game as Northwestern runs all over the Gophers. 3-4

Prediction: The Wildcats have some tough games to open up league play. I think they use this week as a chance to make a statement and overwhelm Minny. L: 38-14, 4-3 (0-3)

Nebraska: 10-4 (7-1) – Big Ten

Best Case: This was a 38-14 laugher last year. Gophers keep it interesting but come up short. 5-3

Worst Case: Huskers have the look of a title contender. Minnesota doesn’t. 3-5

Prediction: I don’t trust Philip Nelson to put up enough points for Minnesota to keep up with one of the elite scoring units in the nation. L: 31-14, 4-4 (0-4)

At Indiana: 4-8 (2-6) – Big Ten

Best Case: After a rough start to the conference slate, Kill’s squad gets back on track with a nice road win and locks in a second straight bowl. 6-3

Worst Case: The opposite. Indiana overcomes the rough start and holds home serve against a team closer to their talent level. 3-6

Prediction: The improvement this year will be on the Hoosiers’ side as they return more playmakers on offense. This gets them past the Gophers, barely. L: 28-24, 4-5 (0-5)

Penn State: 8-4 (6-2) – Big Ten

Best Case: Tough matchup for a team lacking talent and experience. They keep it close thanks to being at home but I’ll stick with the Lions. 6-4

Worst Case: Coach Bill O’Brien has his program focused on an Us vs. The World mentality. The result has been a program that was supposed to crumble instead winning games left and right. Meanwhile the Gophers lock up a losing season. 3-7

Prediction: PSU has a pretty stout looking defense. That isn’t a good sign for an offense I’m expecting very little from in 2013. L: 21-10, 4-6 (0-6)

Wisconsin: 8-6 (4-4) – Big Ten

Best Case: Wisconsin’s situation at quarterback never progresses and the transition to a new coach and system just goes horribly wrong. Minnesota scores a tremendous win at home against their big rival, ending years of futility. 7-4

Worst Case: A bad (by Wisconsin standards) team won this 38-13 last season. That doesn’t bode well. 3-8

Prediction: James White zigs left and than zags right and then he’s gone for another score. Minnesota doesn’t have the horses to hang with UW for sixty minutes. L: 42-17, 4-7 (0-7)

At Michigan State 8-5 (6-2) – Big Ten

Best Case: Kill has a history of compiling 10 wins in Year 3 of his tenures at various programs. They’ll get a shot at No. 9 come the bowl game. 8-4

Worst Case: MSU had no troubles in this one a season ago in Minneapolis. Will this loss be bad enough to generate a coaching change? 3-9

Prediction: Spartans have two very rough road games before this one. I think they’ll enjoy some home cooking. L: 20-17 (0-8)

Final Thoughts:

I know some Gopher fans will be peeved at this and accuse me of being an Iowa homer and a Wisconsin fan. Hey, I am – I have association with and root for two programs that hate Minnesota, maybe some of that subconsciously affected my picks.

Here’s what I do know: In addition to an improved division slate, they also take on Penn State and Wisconsin as two of their three crossover games. The league schedule really is going to be a trial by fire. This club has too many question marks for me to like them and their answers in Nelson and Kirkwood simply don’t impress me much. Cue Shania Twain.