Forget that Minnesota has finished no higher than fourth in the Big Ten in the past 17 years, or that it last claimed the conference tide in 1967 The Golden Gophers are carrying serious attitude into the season. Literally. Since spring practice each player has been toting in his wallet a laminated card, designed by strength coach Mike Chism, that bears a picture of the Rose Bowl (where the Gophers haven't played a January game since 1962) and three words: WHY NOT US?
Why not, indeed. Every year some team sneaks up on the nation to become the toast of college football. Northwestern defied expectations to share the Big Ten title in 2000. Maryland had had one winning season in 10 years before taking the ACC crown in 2001. Last year unheralded Iowa, led by quarterback Brad Banks, went to the Orange Bowl.
Minnesota could be next. Since former Kansas coach Glen Mason took over in 1997, the erstwhile Giants of the North have been gently stirring. Last year the Gophers went 8-5, capping the year with a dominating 29-14 victory over heavily favored Arkansas in the Music City Bowl. A speech by quarterback Asad Abdul-Khaliq just before kickoff proved prophetic. "Asad said no one believed we could win," says senior tight end Ben Utecht, "but what mattered was that we believed."
Bolstered by a forgiving schedule ( Michigan at home, no Ohio State or Purdue), Minnesota carries that confidence into 2003. With 17 starters returning, the Gophers are also one of the most experienced teams in the Big Ten, and they have the conference's best tight end in Utecht, who had 37 catches for 480 yards despite playing with a stress fracture in his left foot for the final eight games of the year.
The key to any title run, though, is Abdul-Khaliq. He came to Minnesota from a crime-ridden neighborhood in Elizabeth, N.J., and a postgrad stop at Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy. In his third year as the Gophers' starter, Abdul-Khaliq would like to follow in the footsteps of Banks, who busted out as a senior, throwing 26 touchdown passes and only five interceptions. "I had so much respect for his consistency," says Abdul-Khaliq, who had 19 TDs but 11 picks last year. "I'm hoping my experience pays off in the same way."
Known for his scrambling, Abdul-Khaliq has devoted the off-season to perfecting his grasp of the Gophers' spread offense. His comfort level has been boosted during preseason scrimmages by Mason, who has had his quarterback calling the plays. The idea, says the coach, is to "bring Asad back to those Jersey playgrounds of his youth."
Away from practice Abdul-Khaliq is thinking about far bigger arenas—like the stadium he sees every time he opens his wallet. "We've been happy to play in any bowl," he says, "but a January 1 game is what this team is destined for."