Sandell: Gophers' season hinges heavily on nonconference schedule
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If you sift through Gophers coach Jerry Kill's repeated and weathered refrain about the youthfulness of his team, there is a grounded belief in-house that the "U" has undoubtedly upgraded from its near rock-bottom status a year ago.
It's a common mantra for a coaching staff set to begin its second season.
For a team with six wins to its name in the last two years, there is not much to go on but perception. But Kill has injected a noticeable level of faith into the team and portions of the fan base that the program is slowly trending upwards.
And to a degree, their faith isn't unfounded.
With senior starting quarterback MarQueis Gray in front, the Gophers have enough passable to quality players spattered throughout their roster -- most of whom have had a year to get comfortable with Kill's system -- to warrant the expectation in a substantial bump in wins.
However, the Gophers are still likely in for a season ripe with harsh ups and downs. With the number of unknowns surrounding the Gophers, setting the expectation of a four to six win year seems to be the most plausible scenario.
Kill has been very careful to deflect requests for a record prediction, keeping with the underdog persona he has tried to instill.
"I think we're a huge unknown, because we're sitting here talking about a very, very young team," Kill said Saturday. "But athletically and skill-wise, I don't think there is any question we're a better team than we were a year ago."
Expecting a dramatic revival out of the Gophers beyond a .500-caliber season would be woefully naïve, given the overall talent level. But for all the leeway Kill was given as his team trudged through a three-win 2011 season, the pressure he is facing this year to provide tangible signs of progress has certainly increased.
Onlookers won't have to wait long to get an early reading on the current state of the "U" program.
Success for the Gophers this season will be heavily determined by how they fare in the nonconference portion of their schedule, starting with their opener Thursday at UNLV.
Anything less than a 3-1 showing in their first four games would make reaching the six-victory threshold a frightening and almost improbable task, with a Big Ten schedule back-loaded with all four of the conference's preseason ranked teams (Wisconsin, Michigan, Nebraska and Michigan State.)
On paper, the "U" nonconference slate is far from daunting, void of any top-tier foes -- see : USC 2010-11.
The Gophers' four opponents -- UNLV, New Hampshire (FCS), Western Michigan and Syracuse -- posted a combined 22-25 record in 2011, weighted down by UNLV's two-win campaign.
None of the four games can be glossed over, especially with the Gophers' fledgling state, but they are well within the winnable realm.
Opening on the road and in extreme conditions - game time temperature Thursday is expected to be in the upper 90s - isn't ideal, but the Gophers remain favored against the Rebels -- a program suffering from more than a decade of ineptitude. Though it's likely to be an affair loaded with a share of cringe-worthy highlights, the Gophers are in position to sneak back to the Twin Cities for their home opener on Sept. 8 with a victory in hand.
New Hampshire is an upper echelon FCS squad, but one a Big Ten school should beat. Confidence in Kill's leadership could take a rapid, early hit if the Gophers falter against the Wildcats and prolong their losing streak versus FCS schools to three straight games.
Western Michigan and Syracuse are the "U's" two biggest nonconference concerns. Kill's staff has a layer of familiarity with the Bill Cubit-led Broncos, dating to their three years spent in the MAC with Northern Illinois. Western Michigan's only glaring loss last season came in a 34-10 Game 1 defeat to Michigan. The Broncos went on to finish with a 7-5 regular season record and a 37-32 loss in the Little Caesars Bowl.
Syracuse is a bit of an enigma. The Orange have won more than five games in a season only once in the last seven years. Their 5-7 campaign in 2011 was a bust apart from their 49-23 upset against then-No. 15 ranked West Virginia. It is difficult to predict how the volatile program will fare this season. Syracuse's opener against Illinois may go a long ways in displaying what the Gophers could be in for come Sept. 22.
A slip-up or even multiple missteps have to be expected from the Gophers early this season. Kill's squad desperately needs to an injection of confidence before diving into Big Ten play. Falling behind in the first half was the Gophers' downfall in all three nonconference losses last season.
If they avoid doing so, there is enough talent on the roster to make three or four victories in the season's first month a real possibility. Any thing less than that and the "U" could be quickly headed towards a year not much unlike the last two.
Big Ten nonconference schedule breakdown
(Sorted by opponents' combined 2011 regular season records only).
1. Michigan (31-16
2. Penn State (30-18)
3. Nebraska (29-19)
T4. Michigan State (28-20)
T4. Iowa (28-20)
6. Purdue (27-20)
7. Wisconsin (25-23)
8. Indiana (22-24)
9. Minnesota (22-25)
T10. Illinois (21-26)
T10. Northwestern (21-26)
12. Ohio State (19-29)
Based only on their opponents combined records last season, Penn State and Nebraska rank above Michigan State. But the Spartans and rival Michigan have arguably the Big Ten's two toughest nonconference schedules. Michigan earns the overall title based on the sheer fact they open the season against the reigning national champion, Alabama.
The Wolverines also have their yearly meeting with Notre Dame. Michigan State begins the year at home against No. 24 Boise State and also has a date with the Irish.
For as easy as some onlookers have made the Gophers' early schedule out to be it fits in with the lower-echelon of the Big Ten.
• The Gophers are the only FBS-level team to open the season on the road in four consecutive seasons.
• Indiana is the only Big Ten team not facing an opponent who appeared in either a bowl game or the FCS playoffs in 2011.
• Eight Big Ten teams face will an FCS opponent this season -- Iowa, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Northwestern, Illinois, Purdue, Indiana and Minnesota.
Big Ten nonconference schedules
(Schedules include team's 2011 regular season record and postseason results)
Sept. 1: Alabama (11-1; 12-1 with win in National Championship)
Sept. 8: Air Force (7-5; 7-6 with loss in Military Bowl)
Sept. 15: Massachusetts (5-6)
Sept. 22: @ Notre Dame ((8-4; 8-5 with loss in Champs Sports Bowl)
Sept. 1: Ohio (9-3; 10-4 with loss in MAC championship and win in Idaho Potato Bowl)
Sept. 8: @ Virginia (8-4; 8-5 with loss in Chick-Fil-A Bowl)
Sept. 15: Navy (5-7)
Sept. 22: Temple (8-4, 9-4 with win in New Mexico Bowl)
Sept. 1: Southern Miss (11-2; 12-2 with win in Sheraton Hawaii Bowl)
Sept. 8: @ UCLA (6-6; 6-8 with losses in Pac-12 championship and Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl)
Sept. 15: Arkansas State (10-2; 10-3 with loss in GoDaddy.com Bowl)
Sept. 22: Idaho State, FCS (2-9)
Aug. 31: Boise State (11-1; 12-1 with win in Las Vegas Bowl)
Sept. 8: @ Central Michigan (3-9)
Sept. 15: Notre Dame (8-4; 8-5 with loss in Champs Sports Bowl)
Sept: 22: Eastern Michigan (6-6)
Sept. 1: Northern Illinois (9-3; 11-3 with win in MAC championship and win in GoDaddy.com Bowl)
Sept. 8: Iowa State (6-6; 6-7 with loss in Pinstripe Bowl)
Sept. 15: Northern Iowa, FCS (9-2; 10-3with win and loss in FCS playoffs)
Sept. 22: Central Michigan (3-9)
Sept. 1: Eastern Kentucky, FCS (7-4;7-5 with loss in FCS playoffs)
Sept. 8: @ Notre Dame (8-4; 8-5 with loss in Champs Sports Bowl)
Sept. 15: Eastern Michigan (6-6)
Sept. 29: Marshall (6-6; 7-6 with win in Beef O' Brady Bowl)
Sept. 1: Northern Iowa, FCS (9-2; 10-3with win and loss in FCS playoffs)
Sept. 8: @ Oregon State (3-9)
Sept. 15: Utah State (7-5; 7-6 with loss in Idaho Potato Bowl)
Sept. 22: UTEP (5-7)
Sept. 1: Indiana State (6-5)
Sept. 8: Massachusetts (5-6)
Sept. 15: Ball State (6-6)
Oct. 20: Navy (5-7)
Aug. 30: @ UNLV (2-10)
Sept. 8: New Hampshire, FCS (8-3; 8-4 with loss in FCS playoffs)
Sept. 15: Western Michigan (7-5; 7-6 with loss in Little Caesars Bowl)
Sept. 22: Syracuse (5-7)
Sept. 1: Western Michigan (7-5; 7-6 with loss in Little Caesars Bowl)
Sept. 8: @ Arizona State (6-6; 6-7 with loss in Las Vegas Bowl)
Sept. 15: Charleston Southern, FCS (0-11)
Sept. 22: Louisiana Tech (8-4; 8-5 with loss in Poinsettia Bowl)
Sept. 1: @ Syracuse (5-7)
Sept. 8: Vanderbilt (6-6; 6-7 with loss in Liberty Bowl)
Sept. 15: Boston College (4-8)
Sept. 22: South Dakota, FCS (6-5)
Sept. 1: Miami-OH (4-8)
Sept. 8: UCF (5-7)
Sept. 15: Cal (7-5; 7-6 with loss in Holiday Bowl)
Sept. 22: UAB (3-9)