Philadelphia, PA – 2013 SEASON IN REVIEW: The Golden Gophers made a two-game improvement from the 2012 season, finishing last year at 8-5.
However, they were hoping for bigger things considering at one point they were 8-2 and coming off a bye week. Northwestern, Nebraska, Indiana and Penn State had all fallen victim to the Gophers in consecutive weeks.
Minnesota's final two games on the schedule were at home against No. 16 Wisconsin and at eventual Big Ten and Rose Bowl champ Michigan State. Both games were hard fought, but the Gophers ultimately lost both; a 20-7 setback to the Badgers and a 14-3 decision in East Lansing.
Instead of a BCS bowl, they were headed to the Texas Bowl to face Syracuse on Dec. 27. A late touchdown run in that one lifted the Orange to a 21-17 victory and sent Minnesota into the offseason wondering what could have been.
"When we came back from our bowl game and we had a team meeting," head coach Jerry Kill said at Big Ten media day, "I shared with our kids, 'right now you should be starving. We made some great strides. We did some good things that hadn't been done for a while. And now we have to take it another step.'"
OFFENSE: Mitch Leidner took some valuable snaps under center last year as a redshirt freshman, although Philip Nelson handled much of the passing load. This year, Leidner has the starting quarterback gig all to himself, and he'll look to improve upon his 55.1 percent accuracy on 78 attempts. While Leidner threw just 1 interception, his biggest plays were made on the ground as he ran for 7 touchdowns and averaged 41 yards per game.
Opposing defenses can expect to see some option looks with Leidner and senior running back David Cobb, who churned out 1,202 yards and 7 touchdowns. Cobb became the first Gopher to rush for more than 1,000 yards since Amir Pinnix in 2006.
At tight end, Maxx Williams returns after leading the team with 25 catches for 417 yards and 5 TDs. With Minnesota lacking a true difference-maker at wideout, keep an eye on 6-foot-3 freshman Melvin Holland Jr., a four-star recruit out of Ashburn, Virginia.
DEFENSE: Minnesota was not a particularly stout defensive squad last year, ranking 43rd nationally in total defense (373.2 ypg). But while the Golden Gophers often bent, they did not always break. They were the nation's No. 25 scoring defense (22.2 ppg) and were ranked 15th inside the red zone.
Leading the way up front is defensive end Theiren Cockran, who posted 7.5 sacks and 10 tackles for loss to go along with 4 forced fumbles and a recovery. The top two tacklers return in linebacker Damien Wilson (78 tackles, 5.5 TFL) and safety Cedric Thompson (79 tackles, INT, 2 fumble recoveries).
SPECIAL TEAMS: Freshman Ryan Santoso tops the depth chart at kicker. Punter Peter Mortell averaged 43.3 yards on 62 punts, with 21 landing inside the 20 and 15 that went 50 yards or more.
OUTLOOK: Minnesota ranked 37th in the country last year in rushing offense (195.2 ypg) but only 115th in passing (148.1 ypg). Looking ahead, the ground component figures to be just as good, if not better, with Leidner and Cobb sharing the backfield for a full season. The question is, can Leidner make strides in the passing game in his sophomore campaign? And can the defense improve between the 20s?
All told, Minnesota has eight returning starters on offense and seven on defense.
"I think there's no question we want to continue to improve on what we did last year," Kill said of the team's 2014 goals. "We won eight games, and I think anytime you go into the Big Ten and if you don't have a mission to win the Big Ten, then why play?"
Kill's confident outlook is commendable. After all, the Gophers were the surprise team in the Big Ten throughout most of last season. But all it takes is one look at the schedule to see that even matching last year's win total will be difficult.
The team plays TCU and Michigan both on the road and both before the end of September. A three-game gauntlet awaits at the end of the regular season as Minnesota hosts Ohio State and then hits the road to face Nebraska and Wisconsin.