- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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As the 2012 season approaches, we're going through the best case and worst case scenarios for each Big Ten squad this fall. The Minnesota Golden Gophers are up next.
As a reminder, these pieces are not in any way predictions. They are meant to illustrate the realistic potential highs and lows for a team's season, and any game-by-game breakdowns are more of a means to an end than anything else. And we're trying to have some fun here.
Let's see what Year 2 of the Jerry Kill era could have in store.
Kill shows why he's a master at rehabbing programs. Led by quarterback MarQueis Gray, the Gophers emerge from the mist of the Tim Brewster era and not only get back to a bowl game, but make noise in a crowded Legends Division.
It begins on a Thursday night in Sin City, as Minnesota thrashes UNLV by four touchdowns. The Gophers eclipse 30 points for the first time in the Kill era, as Gray fires two touchdown passes to tight end John Rabe and running back James Gillum rushes for 120 yards and a score. After the game, Goldy wins a progressive jackpot at the Golden Nugget and pledges the money toward a new football complex.
Minnesota makes quick work of New Hampshire and scores another impressive win against Western Michigan, as a beleaguered Gophers defensive line sacks quarterback Alex Carder five times. Student ticket sales triple as the Gophers complete a sweep of non-league play by rallying to beat Syracuse on double-reverse pass to Gray.
A week later, Minnesota brings home the bacon yet again as it records its third consecutive win against Iowa, its longest win streak in the series since 1998-2000. Gray racks up 400 yards of total offense and vows after the game to name his next son Floyd. Kirk Ferentz goes vegan.
The Gophers improve to 6-0 for the first time since 2003 with a win the next week against Northwestern. The student section is packed. Prince sings the national anthem and then gives athletic director Norwood Teague a $3 million check toward the new football facility. The Gophers enter the Top 25 for the first time since November 2008. Kill picks up eight verbal commits. Troy Stoudermire sets the all-time NCAA kick return yards record.
Minnesota drops its first game the next week in Madison, but it puts a major scare into the rival Badgers. There's no mass celebration after the Badgers squeak out a 2-point victory.
The Gophers get back on track against Purdue and avenge their disastrous performance in Ann Arbor with a stunning victory against Michigan, their first since 2005. Gophers defensive lineman Ra'Shede Hageman keeps Denard Robinson out of the end zone in the closing seconds by bringing him down by an untied shoelace. Students storm the field to get their hands on the Little Brown Jug.
Although Minnesota drops two of its final three games, the 9-3 finish marks the team's best since 2003. Gray earns Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year honors, and the Gophers advance to the Outback Bowl and beat Georgia. Teague announces plans for a massive facilities upgrade as recruits continue to stream in.
The misery continues in Minneapolis as the Gophers miss a bowl yet again, doubts increase about Kill's viability in a big-time program and both students and recruits stay far, far away.
Things begin with a thud in Vegas, as a UNLV team that went 2-10 in 2011 beats the Gophers on a two-point conversion with no time remaining. The night before, Bellagio officials call animal control after spotting Goldy trying to swim in its famed fountain.
The Gophers barely beat New Hampshire before a crowd of 18,000 before Carder tosses five touchdowns the following week to lift Western Michigan to a win. Ryan Nassib takes his turn dissecting the Gophers defense, which gives him all the time he needs to throw in a Syracuse victory.
Iowa butchers the Gophers in the Big Ten opener 48-3, reclaiming the Floyd of Rosedale.
Minnesota bribes 200 students from nearby Macalester College to attend the Big Ten home opener against Northwestern. Most leave at halftime as Northwestern builds a 24-3 lead and cruises from there.
Another blowout loss follows in Madison, as Wisconsin retains Paul Bunyan's Axe for the eighth consecutive year. Leading by 50 points in the fourth quarter, Badgers coach Bret Bielema, rarely one to ease off the gas, instructs his third-string quarterback to take a knee at the Minnesota 4-yard line.
The Gophers manage to record a Big Ten win down the stretch -- against Purdue or Illinois -- but look noncompetitive in their other contests and tumble to 2-10. Michigan blanks Minnesota for the second straight year and keeps the Jug. Attendance continues to plummet. Recruits don't commit. Teague announces a new basketball facilities plan but ignores football. Tubby chuckles.
Wisconsin and Iowa meet in the Big Ten title game and both go onto BCS bowl victories.
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