College football coaches say you can't win, control the clock or grind out short-yardage first downs without a good running back. But can a team with two marquee running backs -- but huge questions at quarterback -- be as successful as a team with more balance?
That's what Minnesota will find out this season. Glen Mason's Gophers return 1,000-yard rushers in Marion Barber III and Big Ten Freshman of the Year Laurence Maroney, but they have a significant hole at quarterback.
Mason jokes that he could play quarterback and hand off and the Gophers would be all right, but will that really work against eight-man fronts?
With 13 starters returning, Minnesota coaches and players are optimistic that they can build on back-to-back bowl victories and the program's first 10-win season since 1905. But with the quarterback questions, can the Minnesota program finish this season in something other than a lower-tier bowl game?
"I think there will be more pressure on the quarterback position this year than at any time I've been here," Mason said. "Why? Everybody expects us to be good. I expect us to be good. The players expect us to be good. The kids that we have at the quarterback position are good kids, and they don't want to let anyone down."
OffenseThis is about as stereotypical as it gets in the Big Ten. When you think about college football in the Midwest, it's hard to not think about pounding the ball on the ground. That's exactly what Minnesota is going to do this season. Barber III is going to get the ball. Maroney is going to get the ball. And a veteran and talented offensive line is going to open holes for this duo that combined for 2,317 yards in 2003.
Nothing flashy. Nothing fancy.
It's a good thing the Gophers are so loaded at running back, since Minnesota enters this season without any experience at quarterback. While Asad Abdul-Khaliq wasn't embraced by Minnesota fans, he finished his career as the school record-holder in total offense and passing touchdowns. His successor likely won't be determined until some time in fall camp, but it will almost certainly be either Bryan Cupito or Adam Ernst. Cupito, a redshirt sophomore, was impressive in the spring and enters fall camp with more experience. The Gophers' coaches like his accuracy. Ernst is a junior college transfer who began his career at California.
Whoever wins the derby has to make good throws and take advantage of mismatches when teams line up to stop the run.
Led by All-America center Greg Eslinger, the Gophers return five linemen who started at least six games last season.
DefenseMason's goals for his defense are three-fold: He wants to create more pressure on the opposition's quarterback; he wants to force more turnovers; and he wants his players to attack rather than react.
In an attempt to increase a low sack total of 26, two defensive linemen have switched positions. Darrell Reid, a former tackle, has switched spots with Mark Losli, a former end. It was a move the Gophers toyed with before the Sun Bowl and made permanent in spring practice. Reid is the quicker of the two, and Mason said Losli essentially outgrew the end position.
While there will be some new faces at linebacker and in the defensive backfield, the Gophers' coaches don't seem overly concerned. That's because this group has much more speed than Minnesota defenses of the past.
Mason hopes that increased athleticism will lead to the Gophers forcing more than the 16 turnovers they created a year ago.
SpecialistsBecause he wasn't eligible until shortly before the Gophers' opener last season, Rhys Lloyd was one of the team's biggest surprises. His extremely strong leg produced a pair of game-winning field goals. He will again handle Minnesota's punting and kicking.
While many teams have return specialists, Mason considers special teams important enough to use his best players. That means Barber and/or Maroney will handle the bulk of the punt and kickoff returns.
Final AnalysisThere is nothing more important for the Gophers than finding a quarterback who can run the offense, because as good as the Gophers' running back duo of Barber and Maroney is, the lack of a confident quarterback could be the difference between contending for a Jan. 1 bowl game or returning someplace like El Paso or Nashville.