Sandell: How will Gophers measure success or failure this season?
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After defying the expectations of many in 2013 with an eight-win season, how should success be measured for the Minnesota Gophers in Year 4 of the Jerry Kill era?
A year after a last-minute loss to Texas Tech in the 2012 Texas Bowl, the Gophers suffered a similar late collapse against Syracuse in their return trip to Houston. The bitter ending clouded the Gophers otherwise breakout year. However, it didn't overshadow the fact Kill's squad, behind a formidable defense that made up for glaring shortcomings on offense, showed signs of progress en route to the program's highest win total in a decade.
So what's the next step for the Gophers?
From a surface view, it would be easy to say anything less than another eight-win campaign could be a marked as disappointment. But it's not that simple. The Gophers' success or failure this season should be gauged not so much just by win total, but more so by how they get there.
While a matchup against Big 12 foe TCU in Fort Worth certainly ups the difficulty factor, the Gophers still have a more than manageable nonconference schedule. But come Big Ten season, they are in for a grueling run. Minnesota finishes the season with a gauntlet stretch that features Iowa, Ohio State, Nebraska and Wisconsin - all four of which are contenders for the Big Ten title.
Given their schedule, the Gophers could be a widely improved team and still win fewer games in the regular season. It all depends on the way in which they win or lose, and against which teams those wins and losses come.
Last year's home victory over then-No. 25 Nebraska stands as the best example of a "signature win" in the Kill era so far. The Gophers need more. That begins with the trophy games. A victory over Michigan, Iowa or Wisconsin could go a long way toward pushing the program further along in its bid to reach sustained legitimacy in the Big Ten. Minnesota has only won three Big Ten road games under Kill. If the Gophers want to be taken seriously in the conference, they have to prove they can keep pace away from home. It won't be easy this season, with trips to Ann Arbor, Lincoln and Madison looming.
For the Gophers to avoid backtracking, they must stay away from major letdowns. Part of doing so includes winning the games in which they'll be favored. First of all that means taking out lesser nonconference foes (Eastern Illinois, Middle Tennessee State and San Jose State). In Big Ten play, a three-game run against Northwestern, Purdue and a road trip to Illinois could be a vital determining factor of their postseason fate.
It's also critical Minnesota end the season on a high note. The Gophers haven't won a bowl game since 2004 (Music City Bowl vs. Alabama) - the second-longest drought in the Big Ten (Indiana hasn't won since the 1991 Copper Bowl). While the quality of the bowl also plays a factor, a postseason win would be another key milestone in the rebuild Kill is trying to oversee at Minnesota. Kill and his players have referenced to last year's Texas Bowl defeat as a turning point of sorts, the wake-up call that was needed to show how much more had to be done to take the leap forward they envision is possible.
Now the trick is translating that renewed drive into tangible results this season.
The Gophers resurgence last year upped the expectations of not only of the team itself, but also those of the fan base. With that in mind, though, its important to view this squad from a realistic and somewhat cautious standpoint.
Minnesota has plenty to feel good about, with a determined defense that has often been undervalued and a roster with solid overall experience (26 players made at least two starts in 2013). At the same time, there is still a series of questions to be answered.
Sophomore Mitch Leidner has embraced the role of starting quarterback, but can he provide the guidance and production under center the Gophers have lacked for the past three years? Or will he succumb to the same identity crisis his predecessors suffered? Does Leidner have enough weapons around him to revive a slumbering pass game? Even with the loss of Ra'Shede Hageman and Brock Vereen, the Gophers defense is armed with more than enough options to again hold its own gainst the best in the Big Ten, but can the group live up to its rising standards? And with the perceived all-around improvements made in the offseason, is Kill's team ready to not only contend with the conference's upper echelon, but also notch a potentially season-changing upset or two?
The answers to those questions are integral to how the Gophers' fourth season under Kill will be defined.