After a short hiatus, the B1G Picture series is back taking football with Wisconsin's longest standing rival: Minnesota. Tom from The Daily Gopher joins us to discuss the season that was, give his take on Jerry Kill so far, and look ahead at what's to come in the fall.
BuckAround (BA): 2012 started out well, but the rest of the season was up and down. What's your take on the season? Was year two of Jerry Kill a success? Where did you see improvement? Did anything regress?
Tom: 2012 was clearly a successful season for Jerry Kill's squad. It is easy to just look at records to see that there was improvement and a bowl game. But when you look closer you see that we were more competitive in the games we lost and statistically there were dramatic improvements, particularly on the defensive side of the ball.
BA: To this point in his tenure what's the general impression of Kill? What needs to happen in year three to make and/or keep them happy? Are his health issues of any concern?
Tom: I think anyone who is paying attention is happy with the improvement and with Coach Kill. He is building the program with a solid foundation of hard work and fundamentals. He is recruiting to his system, which has been consistent each year, and things are starting to come together. In year three I think this team just needs to continue to take baby steps. Being able to be competitive against any Big Ten team and finishing somewhere in the 5 to 7 win range is realistic and should be acceptable. What would really make this season stand out and give fans tangible evidence that this program is moving in the right direction would be a signature win. Beating a ranked team as a big underdog is what Jerry Kill needs.
BA: Do you think there is a ceiling for Minnesota football right now? If so, what is it? Glen Mason was fired despite putting together 6-8 win teams that went bowling on a pretty regular basis; is it fair to expect more? What level of commitment is there to football by the university? Do you think public sentiment on this issue is in line with reality?
Tom: There is clearly a realistic ceiling, this program isn't going to be competing for national titles anytime soon. Glen Mason brought the program to mediocrity and then seemed to be content there. His teams were never able to play defense and he had a few too many monumental collapses. Jerry Kill can take this program further than Mason did, but it takes some time. Competing for a division title every few years is a realistic ceiling for this program. It starts with Jerry Kill and getting a broader commitment from the University will be a huge help. Earlier this month a facilities upgrade plan of about $190 million was announced, much of which is going to enhance football practice facilities.
BA: What are the key position battles to follow going in to fall camp? Are there any candidates for breakout seasons on the roster? What will the offense look with Phillip Nelson in year two? Where is your biggest area of concern? Where is it strongest?
Tom: I don't know if there are any real key position battles, rather just a few open spots where somebody needs to step up and become "the guy to beat." Middle linebacker, corner and wide receiver are the most open positions at this point. And then you have a handful of other positions with opportunities for breakout players. Unfortunately I think the biggest breakout players will be the least sexy ones. I believe you will see the Gophers have one of the better offensive lines in the conference this year. Names like Josh Campion and Zac Epping will emerge as candidates for conference post-season awards. The defensive line should also be a pretty good unit led by Ra'Shede Hageman.
BA: I have to ask, what was that whole AJ Barker thing? The timing, the "manifesto", and his departure was bizarre. What do you make of his statements? How does his departure hurt the team on and off the field?
Tom: You mean the kid who had a badly sprained ankle, was trusting his acupuncturist more than the trainers, started yelling at the trainers, which lead Kill to stop practice to rip Barker a new one, which embarrassed AJ, who then quit, but not before writing a manifesto, which informed us that his mom's best friend thought he was the best player on the team, so he transferred to Houston, was busted for pot possession, re-enrolled at Minnesota, talked with Jerry about rejoining the team but was told no. Yes, it was a bizarre situation. We need help at receiver but he wasn't "that" good.
BA: What are your expectations for 2012? Will the Gophers be bowling again this year? What will the team look like style-wise? Will it be built around the offense or the defense? What's an early indication that they've grown from 2012?
Tom: I think this team will be better in 2013. I don't know about wins and losses but I expect they will make fewer mistakes and will be better equipped to physically compete with Big Ten opponents. The overall talent isn't here yet but knowing their assignments and not giving plays away (see Iowa and Northwestern games last year) will go a long way towards being in games in the 4th quarter. I expect improvement but I don't know if the overall record will be much different than it was in 2012.
BA: Given the opposite trajectories of Minnesota and Wisconsin the past few years, has the Axe game lost any of it's luster with fans? On a larger scale, though they would never admit it, Wisconsin is trying very hard to make themselves a "national program"; do the Gophers want to do the same thing?
Tom: No, I don't think the Axe game has lost any appeal. Maybe the actual game is unappealing, but the Axe is still one of the most iconic rivalry trophies in college football. And I think every BCS level program wants to be able to compete at a national level.
BA: What's your take on Bret Bielema's surprise departure for Arkansas? Is this a part of the SEC-as-the-dominant-conference narrative? What was the reaction in Minnesota to his departure? Who is the conference's coaching villain now that he is gone?
Tom: Bret Bielama leaving was shocking to me. I can see the notion of wanting to compete and prove yourself at the highest level, he is part of a very competitive fraternity. I can also see how he had a real love-hate relationship with Badger fans. He was winning, but he was an arrogant S.O.B.
Now I can't decide if I want to see him succeed, which might just piss Badger fans off; or if I want him to fall flat on his face because he is a douche. Ultimately I don't care what he does as long as the Badgers come back to the mean.
I really don't think he'll succeed in Arkansas. Getting to face Bama, LSU and Auburn every year with an occasional Florida and Georgia...good luck. He seems to have a plan and he is confident in his ability to execute it. So we'll see.
BA: Share your impressions of Gary Andersen thus far. Any feelings for how the Badgers will do with him in the short and long term? Most importantly, is this the year the Gophers take back the Axe?
Tom: I know nothing about Gary Anderson [sic] (other than the one who missed a chip-shot FG that would have sent the Vikings to the Super Bowl in 98-99). I wish they would have hired Tim Brewster.
I don't think a Gopher win at TCF this year is unfathomable but I'm not putting my money on it. I'm hoping for a season of adjusting to a new coaching staff and the Badgers being more vulnerable in 2013. That plus having a home game makes it plausible, though still unlikely. This is the year that Minnesota's program needs a signature win, beating a likely ranked Badgers for the first time since 2003 would certainly qualify as signature.
Tom founded The Daily Gopher in 2008 and serves as managing editor.