- Mitch Sherman, ESPN Staff Writer
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Our best- and worst-case series continues its school-by-school journey through the Big Ten.
Remember, these are not predictions. They illustrate potential highs and lows and give us an opportunity, before the seriousness of the season arrives, to have a little fun.
Up, the next Minnesota Golden Gophers.
Before all the lollipops and rose petals, a question: Minnesota fans, would you take another 8-5 season, guaranteed no better or worse, if it were offered today?
Yes? I thought so.
With a backloaded schedule, quarterback questions and not much in the way of all-conference-caliber talent, the Gophers ought to jump at the opportunity to repeat the magic of 2013. Let’s face it, last season played out very much in best-case fashion.
Fast forward to Nov. 29. It’s been a fun fall for the Gophers as quarterback Mitch Leidner has come of age in Matt Limegrover’s offense. Running back David Cobb improved on his 1,200-yard junior season to earn second-team All-Big Ten honors. The Gophers got a great season from defensive end Theiren Cockran.
Still, there is unfinished business at hand. Wisconsin has won 10 straight in this series. Little reason exists to believe, after losses to Ohio State and Nebraska -- the Gophers’ first two-game skid of the season -- that Paul Bunyan’s Axe is coming back to the Twin Cities.
But coach Gary Andersen’s club, eliminated from contention for the West title a week earlier in a loss at Iowa, wallowed in its sorrows and ate a bit too much turkey before the visit from Leidner and Co.
The sophomore quarterback turns Camp Randall into his personal playground, throwing for 200 yards in the first half -- highlighted by a 93-yard catch and run from big tight end Maxx Williams to give the Gophers a 21-7 lead. They hold on to win 24-21 as Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon loses his second late fumble in as many weeks, sealing the win for Minnesota.
The Gophers carry Jerry Kill out of the stadium on their shoulders after a second straight eight-win regular season that began with a 4-0 nonconference run, featuring a 6-4 victory at TCU on Sept. 13 that does little for Big Ten credibility. Sure, a win’s a win, but this game was so ugly that Kill and old buddy Gary Patterson agreed during the post-game handshake to cancel the Horned Frogs' return trip to Minneapolis in 2015.
Minnesota can’t pull off its fourth win against Michigan since 1977, but the Gophers rebound behind Cobb and an improving defensive line to win three of the next four.
The Big Ten rewards Kill with an Outback Bowl appearance, Minnesota’s first postseason trip to Florida since the 2000 MicronPC.com Bowl (that game -- and sponsor -- existed) to face fellow upstart Ole Miss.
Low and behold, Minnesota gets its ninth victory on New Year’s Day. Guess the Gopher fans should think twice about that eight-win guarantee after all.
Murphy’s Law at work here, starting on Sept. 6 as the Gophers lose at home to Conference USA’s Middle Tennessee when Leidner throws four interceptions. A week later, Minnesota is reeling as it heads to TCU, and its collective mood only gets worse after a 24-0 beatdown by the Frogs exposes the lack of playmakers on this offense.
Minnesota opens Big Ten play with losses to Michigan and Northwestern before staging a temporary resurgence on homecoming against Purdue. But Cobb and senior guard Zac Epping, the Gophers’ best lineman, are injured on different parts of the same play in a bit of a microcosm of the season.
Both players sit as Minnesota loses at Illinois, ending a four-game winning streak by the Gophers in Champaign. Iowa beats Minnesota at home in a two-hour, 25-minute pillow fight amid freezing rain as neither team completes a pass after halftime. The Hawkeyes, in fact, do not attempt a pass in the second half.
On the eve of a visit from Ohio State, Minnesota fans rally in support in support of Richard Pitino’s basketball team as the coach defeats his father, Rick Pitino, and Louisville in the Armed Forces Class in Puerto Rico. So starved for a celebration, Minnesota students party right through Saturday, largely missing Buckeyes quarterback Braxton Miller's 500 yards of total offense in a 52-3 OSU victory.
Trips to Nebraska and Wisconsin do not go much better. If you’re counting, that’s a 3-9 season, same as 2010 and 2011, yet this time around, it feels much worse.
9hJosh Moyer and Tom VanHaaren
15hAndrea Adelson and Austin Ward
15hMax Olson and Brian Bennett