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Hoge’s Big Ten Preview: Minnesota Golden Gophers

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MarQueis Gray (Photo by Mark A. Cunningham/Getty Images)

MarQueis Gray (Photo by Mark A. Cunningham/Getty Images)

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By Adam Hoge-

While Big Ten training camps are underway, Adam Hoge will devote an entire day to each of the 12 teams in the conference. He will include a preview on each team, plus news, notes and analysis on Twitter. He will also take your questions on Twitter and 670TheScore.com. Follow him at @AdamHogeCBS.

(CBS) Jerry Kill has a reputation for turning around programs pretty quickly. Gophers fans are hoping he will successfully do that in Minneapolis, but this is probably his toughest test yet.

Kill told me last year that he struggled with the decision to leave Northern Illinois, but couldn’t pass up the opportunity to coach a Big Ten program. On the surface, Minnesota’s 3-9 record in 2011 might not look like progress, but beyond the final scores, the Gophers did evolve last season and could be a sneaky team this year.

Let’s take a look a Minnesota’ prospects for 2012:

Top Returnees

1. QB MarQueis Gray (Sr.) – Gray was held back by Tim Brewster early in his career, but is poised for a huge senior year.

2. CB Troy Stoudermire (Sr.) – Solid corner, but even better returner, Stoudermire is back after missing last season with injury.

3. LB Mike Rallis (Sr.) – The veteran middle linebacker is the anchor of a defense that has to improve.

4. WR Brandon Green (Sr.) – Should emerge as Gray’s No. 1 receiving option.

5. LB Keanon Cooper (Sr.) – The playmaking strong-side linebacker had five TFLs last season.

Key Questions

Can this defense stop anybody?

The Gophers allowed 31.7 points per game last season but still showed flashes of talent at times. Let’s not forget they held Matt Barkley and USC to just 19 points in the season opener. But there’s no question the defense has to improve if the Gophers want to even sniff a bowl game this season.

Big plays were a huge problem last year, but the secondary should be better this season. Stoudermire returns at corner and free safety Brock Vereen will be the strength of the secondary. In a conference full of good linebackers, Minnesota holds its own with Rallis and Cooper. The key will be on the defensive line where the Gophers need more of a push. The reviews on junior defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman have been good.

How good can MarQueis Gray be?

When the Gophers landed Gray, it was a huge deal. Unfortunately, it seemed like Brewster had no idea what to do with him. He started as the backup behind Adam Weber — who was a solid quarterback — but it may have been better in the longterm if Gray had been given the keys to the Minnesota offense right away. Kill did that last year and Gray showed off his skills by running for nearly 1000 yards.

He needs to become a better passer though. Gray only completed 50 percent of his passes last season and that has to improve. If he puts it all together, he can easily be one of the better quarterbacks in the Big Ten.

Will Minnesota ever compete for a Big Ten title again?

The Gophers certainly have their limitations. While facilities have improved, they’re still not great. And the program is always going to play second-fiddle to the Vikings and Twins in a professional sports market.

That said, there is decent football talent in the state of Minnesota and Wisconsin and Michigan State have proven that you can win in the Big Ten with average talent if the program is structured the right way and the coaching staff is good.

That’s where Jerry Kill comes in. He’s the right guy for the job and you just hope his health is in good order, which he says it is. The Gophers haven’t won more than seven games in a season since 2003 when they had Marion Barber and Laurence Maroney. They also haven’t had a 1000 yard rusher since 2003. Coincidence? Nope.

Kill needs to boost the running game — junior college transfer James Gillum and sophomore Donnell Kirkwood are competing for the job this year — and he has the offensive line to do it.

This program is never going to be a powerhouse in the Big Ten, but there’s no reason it can’t go to bowl games almost every year and compete for a Big Ten title every once in a while.

Schedule Outlook

The Gophers open the season on Thursday night against UNLV and it will be a good test for them. This is the kind of road game they should win at this point. The home game against Syracuse is also a game they should win and it’s possible Minnesota starts the season 4-0, although the game against Western Michigan is not easy.

The Big Ten schedule is going to be tough though. Road trips at Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois and Nebraska could all be losses and there isn’t an easy home game either (Northwestern, Purdue, Michigan, Michigan State).

Best Case

The Gophers get off to a 4-0 start, meaning they need just two Big Ten wins to become bowl eligible for the first time since 2009. In my opinion, the Iowa, Northwestern, Purdue and Illinois games are the winnable ones and I’d say the best case for Minnesota is to go 3-1 in the those games.

Watch out though, the home game Nov. 3 against Michigan could be circled as one of the possible shockers of the season nationally and Michigan State can’t feel good about going to Minneapolis to finish the regular season after they nearly lost to the Gophers at home last year.

I’d say 3-5 in the Big Ten is the best case scenario this year, giving Minnesota a 7-5 regular season and a bowl appearance.

Worst Case

Minnesota doesn’t make the strides they should in Kill’s second year and the season starts with a dud in Las Vegas. After a win over New Hampshire, the Gophers then drop their next two games against Western Michigan and Syracuse and enter a tough Big Ten schedule with almost no confidence. It’s conceivable for Minnesota to lose all eight conference games, but I’ll give the Gophers the benefit of the doubt and say they at least go 1-7. That would put them at 2-10 on the season, a big step backwards.

Honestly, I’d be shocked if this scenario played out, but it is the absolute worst case possible.

Aug. 8 – Illinois Fighting Illini
Aug. 10 – Indiana Hoosiers
Aug. 15 – Ohio State Buckeyes
Aug. 16 – Penn State Nittany Lions
Aug. 17 – Purdue Boilermakers
Aug. 20 – Wisconsin Badgers
Aug. 21 – Iowa Hawkeyes
Aug. 22 – Michigan Wolverines
Aug. 23 – Michigan State Spartans

adam hoge 2012 small1 Hoges Big Ten Preview: Minnesota Golden Gophers

Adam Hoge

Adam is the Sports Editor for CBSChicago.com and specializes in coverage of the Bears, White Sox and college sports. He was born and raised in Lincoln Park and attended St. Ignatius College Prep before going off to the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he earned a Journalism degree. Follow him on Twitter @AdamHogeCBS and read more of his columns here.

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