Minnesota Golden Gophers (2000: 6-6)
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Coach and programThe opportunity of a lifetime opened up for Minnesota coach Glen Mason when his alma mater Ohio State was in need of a coach. Mason, a former Buckeye player and assistant coach, thought he had a very good shot at the job.
Well, imagine Mason’s dismay when Ohio State picked Jim Tressel, a coach at Division I-AA Youngstown State, to be the Buckeyes' 22nd head coach. Reports described Mason as “devastated” when told that Tressel would be the new coach.
When Mason finally met with the Minnesota media, he was contrite, apologizing for avoiding local media and failing to return phone calls during Ohio State’s 16-day search. He was passionate in expressing his desire to become Ohio State’s coach. He said he hoped Tressel and the Buckeyes go 10-1 every year, losing only to Minnesota.
But is the commitment really there? Mason’s flirtation and subsequent disappointment did not sit well with some in Minnesota. This was hardly anything new. Mason interviewed for jobs at Michigan State and LSU after the previous season.
For the time being, the surest way for Mason to win over disgruntled Gopher fans is to keep the program upright. When the Gophers leapfrogged from 5-6 to 8-4 in 1999, it marked the first time since 1990 that they had a winning record.
In 2000, Minnesota stumbled a bit, but it was still a successful season. It ran out to a 5-2 start by beating Illinois, Penn State, and Ohio State in consecutive weeks.
Can Minnesota make it to three straight bowl games? It has the offense to hang with any Big Ten team. But with so many defensive players gone, the offense is going to have to carry the load. And what about any remaining bad feeling about Mason’s flirtation with Ohio State?
“I hope I have not burned any bridges,’’ he said. “That was not my intent. I love my job. I really am happy at Minnesota. I like the people here, I like the area and I like my players. I like the people I work with. I have a terrific staff and I am still very excited about the direction this program is headed.”
OffenseMinnesota has, hands down, the best wide receiver in the Big Ten and perhaps the best in college football. Ron Johnson (6-3, 216), who has gotten better every season, had 61 catches for a school-record 1,125 yards and 11 scores a year ago.
Who’s the man at quarterback? Right now it appear to be Travis Cole (6-3, 205). The senior started the final eight games of the season. Cole is a traditional drop-back passer with a solid arm. He established himself as the starter over sophomore Asad Abul-Khaliq when he led the Gophers to consecutive victories over Illinois, Penn State and Ohio State.
For the season, Cole was 147-of-252 for 1982 yards with 11 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He also has some mobility, with five scores. He ranked 16th in the nation in passing efficiency (137.6) at the end of the regular season.
Abul-Khaliq (6-0, 201) is a better runner than Cole; he gained 200 yards on 42 carries with four scores a year ago. Publicly they will both compete for the starter’s job. Realistically given Cole’s season, it will be difficult for the young passer to beat him out. But expect Minnesota to sprinkle in Abul-Khaliq for a few meaningful snaps at quarterback.
Junior running back Tellis Redmon (6-0, 192) did an outstanding job filling in for All-Big Ten tailback Thomas Hamner. As a sophomore, he rushed for 1,368 yards -- the fourth-highest total in school history -- and added eight scores.
The offensive line will have to replace a pair of stalwarts. Center Ben Hamilton and tackle Adam Haayer were anchors that helped Minnesota churn out 429.1 yards per game.
Jake Kuppe (6-7, 338) is being shuffled to left tackle to replace Haayer after playing on the right side. Kuppe will have to assume more pass-protection duty now with the switch. The junior has the skills to be an All-Big Ten performer.
Defense and special teamsThe defensive line, as well as most of the defense, is basically revamped. The biggest loss is Karon Riley, the Big Ten sacks leader last year with 12.
The sole returnee is Greg White (6-2, 259) at end. He was a top-notch bookend to Riley as he collected 69 tackles, 50 solo and had six sacks.
Minnesota will have some new faces at linebacker also.
The most experienced player is Astein Osei (6-2, 238). The senior will man the outside after he got hurt in the third game last season and missed the rest the year.
Cornerback Willie Middlebrooks and free safety Delvin Jones left early to the NFL. Even with those losses, the unit could be better. Mike Lehan (6-0, 187) is the sole returnee in the secondary.
Star kicker Dan Nystrom (5-11, 205) was a second team All-Big Ten selection. However, he was probably the most inconsistent kicker in the Big Ten. Nystrom was 25-of-37 on field goals. That’s a substantial drop-off from his stellar freshman season when he was 17-of-21.
Punter Preston Gruening (5-10, 204) was an All-America selection by The Football News. The junior led the nation with a 45.2 punting average.
Bottom lineMinnesota has a chance to do something that no previous Gopher team has done before -- play in a bowl game for the third straight year. Minnesota is one of just four Big Ten teams to earn bowl bids the last two years.
If the offensive line holds up, the Gophers should be among the highest-scoring teams in the league. But they can’t settle for field goals like they did last season.
The defense will be new, but that isn’t bad. Minnesota needs to get more stops because it gave up way too many points (26.5 points per game).
They should reach a bowl despite not finishing in the upper echelon in the league.