Defensive Stat Leaders:Tackles: Troy Stoudermire (82).... Sacks: D.L. Wilhite (8.5).... Interceptions: Michael Carter (4)
Minnesota's in the news today for firing Tubby Smith, but Jerry Kill's job is likely safe for the foreseeable future (as long as his health continues to hold up), given that he took a program that Tim Brewster had damn near destroyed back to respectability and a bowl game, even if the Gophers' trip to the Meineke Car Care Bowl was driven more by opportunistic scheduling and less by a true step forward in talent, scheme, or execution.
But you can't really say that Minnesota just scheduled four cupcakes; they realy only scheduled three. True, New Hampshire is a FCS team, and yes, UNLV and Western Michigan suffered through truly ugly 2-win seasons. But Minnesota's fourth win in the out-of-conference, the win that gave their fans hope heading in to Big Ten play, was a shocking upset of the to-be Big East champions, Syracuse. But then Big Ten play happened, and the Gophers offense just couldn't get untracked, though it was consistent. In all six of Minnesota's conference losses, they scored between 10 and 14 points, breaking out only in a 44-28 win over Purdue that, along with a 17-3 victory of Illinois, clinched a bowl berth, where the Gophers were more competitive than you'd have expected against a solid Texas Tech team.
That's not to say that the Gophers' 2012 season was a waste, despite chaos on and off the field, and serious injury issues on the offensive line. If anything, it should have whetted Gopher's fans for the future. Leading receiver A.J. Barker quit the team after spraining his ankle in October, alleging mistreatment from the training staff. And at quarterback, Marqueis Gray was expected to be a bright side, but he got hurt. Then promising sophomore Max Shortell stepped in to fill the gap...and he got hurt, and struggled, too. But from chaos springs opportunity: The job fell to true freshman Philip Nelson, who performed well enough (especially in the Purdue game) that the job appears to be his for the next three years. Leading rusher Donnell Kirkwood? He was a sophomore. The defense took a huge step forward, ranking 11th nationally against the pass, and fifth in the Big Ten in total defense. The Gophers might be poised to break out from the conference cellar next year.
Sure enough, Minnesota brought in the worst-rated recruiting class in the conference, and in his third try, Jerry Kill still hasn't signed a 4-star player to the Gophers. But it's not as though that's catastrophic--Minnesota's class ranks right among that of Stanford, Georgia Tech, Syracuse, and Boise State, teams that have had plenty of success in recent years. They also continued to make solid inroads into the south, pulling in about half the class from Texas, Florida, and Georgia.
But the key to the Gophers' success in 2013 won't be from reloading via an okay recruiting class. Instead, it'll be thanks to a glut of returning starters, especially on the offensive end. Minnesota brings back 16 players who started in 2012, including everyone but Barker and starting tight end John Rabe--four-fifths of the offensive line were underclassmen. Defensively, there are more hits--D.L. Wilhite, Troy Stoudermire and Michael Carter, the Gophers thre best defenders, won't return--but six returning starters give them at least some experience, moving forward.
Next year will be more of the same for Minnesota, as they look to steal three easy wins over outmatched nonconference foes (UNLV, New Mexico State, and Western Illinois combined for 3 FBS wins last year), while hoping to upset a fourth (the surprisingly good San Jose State), but that's where the schedule stops being so friendly.
The two teams Minnesota was able to knock off last year, Purdue and Illinois, aren't on the 2013 schedule. Looking for opportunities to pick off fellow bottom-dwellers? Well, the Indiana game is in Bloomington, and unless Iowa struggles as much as they did last year, it's kind of hard to see a Big Ten home win--Minnesota also plays host to Penn State, Nebraska, and Wisconsin. This is a team with talent, though not so many playmakers, and it's not hard to see them picking off a better team in a trap game, or maybe playing their best football to knock off a Michigan State or a Northwestern. But it's hard to see Minnesota winning three conference games, with that schedule, and making a second straight bowl game for the first time since Glen Mason was at the helm.