Updated: August 2nd, 2012 9:43pm
Sandell: Bowl game not out of the realm of possibility for Gophers

Sandell: Bowl game not out of the realm of possibility for Gophers

by Nate Sandell

MINNEAPOLIS -- Jerry Kill won't say it, but his players will.

As the Gophers enter their second fall camp with Kill at the helm, lofty expectations have already been cemented within the rebuilding program.

Back-to-back three-win seasons are not stopping the players from proclaiming that "Bowl game or bust" is a valid mantra for the unproven team.

"Our expectations are a bowl game," sophomore wide receiver Marcus Jones said Thursday during the Gophers' fall camp news conference. "We've been working since last year to get to a bowl game. We have what it takes."

It is easy to write off that sentiment as typical, unfounded preseason hyperbole. The "Better, faster, stronger" refrain repeated by nearly every team in country, especially squads coming off a season as woeful as the Gophers', can be grating and in some cases comical to hear.

The Gophers are at least a year away from even being in consideration for a top-six finish in the Big Ten. But there is a shred of believability in the players' assurance that doubling their win total from 2011 is a tangible and reasonable scenario.

Once again, some longtime followers of the program may scoff. After all, they have witnessed the Gophers consistently under-perform and disappoint for the better part of the last 40 years. The last 15 years alone have been enough to deter even ardent supporters. The ups and downs of the Glen Mason era (1997-2006) were followed by a three-and-a-half year flirtation with Tim Brewster (2007-2010), filled with outlandish, unrealistic claims and only 15 total wins.

Into the festering mess came Kill in December 2010. Kill made no attempts to gloss over the seismic and long-term upheaval he foresaw being needed to move the program back into the realm of respectability -- a point he repeated in heavy doses for the majority of his first year on campus.

Even with an understanding of what they had inherited, Kill and his coaching staff were put through a season wrought with unexpected setbacks and desperate adjustments. Lacking experience and proven talent up top, the Gophers relied on a first-year quarterback and a bounty of underclassmen to shoulder the team through the season.

By that December, determining what improvements had been made was not possible based solely on final stats and a win total. However, a shift occurred in the final weeks of the season as the players began to shed a thick layer of uncertainty and the coaching staff started to dial into what their group was legitimately capable of achieving. The Gophers tallied just one win in their final four games, but their resounding season finale victory against Illinois book-ended a slow progression towards a competitive state of mind, which started as early as the second half of their Oct. 29 comeback win over Iowa.

With the Illinois win still fresh, the Gophers launched headlong into the offseason.

"I think any time you win and you win your last game, I think that jump starts you," Kill said. "I think if you deny that, I don't think you'd be very truthful."

While the coaches pursued their first recruiting staff, the players were subjected to a strenuous strength and conditioning program, which was focused on better uniting the team. When spring arrived a newfound comfort level could be sensed throughout the program, though it was hard to distinguish if it was tinged by a false sense of optimism.

"Last year there were more changes than just on the field," junior safety Brock Vereen said. "Coach Kill had a new style of things, from study hall to when we eat, stuff like that. I think everybody was adjusting to so many things. This year, we're used to everything."

Added familiarity by itself doesn't make notable advancements appear possible. The Gophers are still a highly flawed team. But an overall serviceable showing in spring practice and in summer workouts has helped slightly overshadowed their abundance of youth and inexperience and varied weaknesses with a grounded hope that palpable improvements are being made.

Senior linebacker Mike Rallis went as far remarking that this summer was probably the best he's been a part of in his five years at the "U" in terms of participation at captains' practice and the intensity of workouts."

In Year 1 under Kill, players entered the year with a blinded faith that the problems with the program weren't as bad as they seemed. They quickly realized they were drastically misguided. Now, one year later, their optimism appears rooted in a team-wide certainty that placing a six-win threshold on the season is justified.

"I certainly feel that way," starting middle linebacker Mike Rallis said. "I'm a senior and I think that plays into it partly, but I think the whole team feels it. Everybody is usually counting down the last few days of summer. This year I felt it's more like we're counting down until we can report and everybody is excited to get in here and get to camp."

Kill, in keeping with his big-picture outlook, won't place a number on his expectations, but his confidence in his team's trajectory has increased in the last several months.

"(The players have) certainly done some good things and made some strides," Kill said. "We're pleased with that and that's why we're cautiously optimistic going in to this season. We expect to move our program forward."

The Gophers are not the same ill-fitted team they were last season, with a semblance of depth at several positions that didn't exist before. However, any predictions of what this season's outlook may be must be couched with the notion that the Gophers began last year at or near rock-bottom. With a sizable cast of returning starters and a growing level continuity, the team can't be faulted for setting a bowl game as their base standard of success this year.

Realistically, six wins, and thus bowl eligibility, likely stands as the maximum ceiling for the Gophers in 2012.

The non-conference schedule is critical. On paper, all four games are reasonably winnable, with match-ups against three fellow lower-tier FBS teams -- UNLV, Western Michigan and Syracuse -- and New Hampshire of the Football Championship Subdivision. An extended letdown at the onset of the season would make a .500 record almost infeasible.

If the Gophers enter the Big Ten season 3-1 or even undefeated, then grabbing at least two to three wins during their daunting conference slate is well within the realm of possibility.

Nate Sandell is a contributor to 1500ESPN.com.
Email Nate | @nsandell