Breaking down any given team's strengths and weaknesses doesn't paint a complete picture. To truly gauge a team's win-loss potential in the preseason, analyzing the schedule is arguably just as important. We will have detailed, timely, matchup-based write-ups on each opponent in the week leading up. In the interim, we present to you our Northwestern opponent summer look ahead. It's a little thing called "Know Your Opponent." The title describes itself: take a peek at the schedule, read up and head into the fall having already completed part of your weekly opponent studying diet.
Returning Starters: Offense - 10 Defense - 7
2013 Record: 8-5 (4-4 Big Ten)
Coach: Jerry Kill, 4th season
The Gophers continued to improve in Jerry Kill's third season, winning eight games and grabbing another bowl berth. Minnesota got four conference wins, including big victories over Northwestern, Nebraska and Penn State. After finishing the regular season on low-scoring losses to Wisconsin and Michigan State, the Gophers fell to Syracuse 21-17 in the Texas Bowl.
Minnesota football has one thing in common with Northwestern basketball. They both love to pound the rock. Senior David Cobb went for over 1200 yards on the ground last year while averaging 5.1 yards per carry. Behind an extremely experienced offensive line, the Gophers are sure to run the ball down opponents throats again this season. After Philip Nelson's disastrous offseason, sophomore Mitch Leidner will assume full-time starting duties at quarterback. Leidner played off-and-on last season, starting four games and throwing for more than 600 yards. Minnesota returns most it's receivers, but none of them went for more than 417 receiving yards a year ago, so the Gophers will keep it on the ground the majority of the time.
While the Gopher offense was solid in 2013, the defense was the unit winning games for Minnesota last season. They held their Big Ten opponents to just 23.5 points per game and ranked 25th nationally in points allowed per game. It won't be that easy again as star defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman and cornerback Brock Vereen moved on to the NFL. Tackle Roland Johnson also departed, so the Gophers won't be able to own the line of scrimmage like they did last year. However, talented pass rusher Theiren Cockran returns looking to build off his 7.5 sacks from a year ago, and safety Cedric Thompson leads a deep secondary. After losing Hageman, arguably the best Golden Gopher since Laurence Maroney, the Minnesota defense won't improve. But if Kill quickly develops the front seven, the Gophers will still be solid defensively.
Three Players to Know
David Cobb, RB - Cobb's breakout junior season included more than 1200 rushing yards, seven touchdowns and six 100-yard games. He only got single-digit rushes in four of the Gophers' first six games last year, but now he's going to be their workhorse in the backfield. Cobb could have a huge year behind Minnesota's strong offensive line.
Theiren Cockran, DE - Named second team all-Big Ten by the media in his sophomore season, Cockran got 7.5 sacks and forced four fumbles last year. The junior becomes the Gophers' cornerstone on a depleted defensive line, and his playmaking ability will be vital in forcing turnovers.
Cedric Thompson, S - The secondary is Minnesota's strongest area on defense and Thompson is their senior leader. Minnesota's leading tackler last year will be required to step up and stop the run even more due to the inexperienced front seven.
In Jerry Kill's 13-year head coaching career in division one football, only once has his team regressed from the previous season. The second time could very well come in 2014. Minnesota lost Hageman, its best player, and other stars on defense. The schedule is fairly difficult with road trips to Michigan, Wisconsin and Nebraska. And although the running game was successful last season, the Gophers were just 86th in the country in points per game. Minnesota will likely handle its non-confernce opponents, beat Illinois and Purdue, play a close one with Northwestern and if they're lucky, grab an upset. Getting a postseason appearance and the opportunity to end Minnesota's decade-long bowl win drought should be enough to satisfy Jerry Kill and the Gopher faithful.