Optimism high for football Gophers

Brett Angel

Seven months have passed since Minnesota’s football team concluded its 2002 season with a 29-14 victory over Arkansas in the Music City Bowl.

In that time, countless references have been made to the fact that this year’s team might have the most potential of any in coach Glen Mason’s seven years with the Gophers.

Well aware of the hype surrounding the team, Minnesota co-offensive coordinator Mitch Browning made perhaps the boldest statement yet last week at the Big Ten’s annual football media day.

“This is my 19th year working with Glen Mason, and talking to him, we agree that this is probably our best football team,” Browning said Wednesday at the Hyatt Regency in Chicago.

Mason, who stayed in Minneapolis to have surgery on his Achilles’ tendon, was the only head coach who did not attend the event.

In July, when every college football team in the country remains undefeated, optimism always seems to soar.

Especially for the Gophers, whose late-season struggles in recent years have left a bitter taste in the mouths of fans and players.

But this year more than ever there is reason to be hopeful, and Browning’s words will only add to the enthusiasm.

Minnesota returns 17 starters from a 2002 team that earned the school’s first bowl victory since 1985, a victory Browning thinks will make all the difference.

“We’ve made three bowl games in the past four years,” Browning said. “The big difference last year is that we won. That was a big boost for our program and gives us momentum going into the season.”

The Gophers’ success will depend largely on their talented trio of running backs. Terry Jackson II, Thomas Tapeh and Marion Barber III combine to give Minnesota one the nation’s best and deepest backfields.

“Barber is a great all-around back,” Browning said. “Tapeh is a great power back and Terry Jackson makes things happen.”

Jackson led Minnesota in its ground game last season, dashing for an average of 101.3 yards per game while Tapeh averaged 69.7. Barber sat out most of the season with a hamstring injury.

Quarterback Asad Abdul-Khaliq will be back for his final season and the defensive unit from a year ago – now more experienced – remains largely intact.

“The players realize what’s at stake here,” senior tight end and co-captain Ben Utecht said. “There’s a lot of seniors on this team and a lot have become leaders.

“So far, there’s been more attendance for summer workouts than I’ve ever seen. We’re doing whatever we can to improve upon last season.”

Even the schedule favors Minnesota, considered by many to have the weakest opponents of the Big Ten title contenders.

The Gophers’ nonconference games are, like last year, against mainly unrecognizable opponents and Minnesota will not play defending national champion Ohio State or Sun Bowl champion Purdue in conference play.

The Big Ten as a conference, however, is getting better, along with Minnesota.

Ohio State became the first national champion from the conference since 1997 and numerous teams in the Big Ten return double-digit starters from 2002.

One of the Gophers’ biggest advantages, though, might be their youth.

“Young teams have the potential to improve more than veteran teams,” Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez said. “They have more flexibility to get stronger and potential to improve more than veteran teams.

“I think (Minnesota) will make a jump.”

The Gophers failed to crack the top three spots in the media’s vote for preseason conference favorites. But it’s been rumored both Minnesota and Purdue have a shot at cracking the top 25 in the season’s opening poll.

Coaches say no to title game

At last year’s Big Ten media day, coaches were bombarded with questions about whether the conference would consider expanding to 12 teams to meet the NCAA requirement to host a postseason title game.

With that discussion now over, the majority of coaches this year displayed no interest in petitioning the NCAA to host a title game with just 11 conference teams.

Alvarez, who will become Wisconsin’s athletics director effective April 1, is one of those coaches.

“I wouldn’t be in favor of a playoff with 11 teams,” he said. “Not as a head coach or as an athletic director.”

The biggest motivational factor for the conference employing a title game would be the payoff. Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany said it could potentially create $10 to $15 million in revenue for the conference.

But most coaches feel that payoff is not worth the risk of injury their players would face in an additional game.

“A championship game is certainly a unique experience,” Indiana coach Gerry DiNardo said. “But it has to start with the players and what is best for them. With an expanded season, players run a larger chance of getting injured and it’s just not worth the risk.”

Official review

Delany has granted the request of Penn State and coach Joe Paterno to review the officiating from last season’s Big Ten games.

“It was done,” Delany said. “We benchmarked officiating practices of the other 1-A conferences compared to what we were doing. We got a lot of coaches into a room and came up with some recommendations.”

Following two separate games last season, Paterno openly voiced his displeasure of officials’ decisions in games.

Delany said the Big Ten will have a press conference in the next two weeks to reveal its findings.

– Brian Stensaas contributed to this report.

Brett Angel welcomes comments at [email protected]