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Evaluating which Gophers teams have the best shot at a Big Ten title this fall.

Derek Wetmore

The narrative has been written over and over: The Twins nearly lost 100 games; the Wolves are locked out and stink; and the Vikings continue to embarrass. In a fair-weather sports market that craves a team to cling to, only the Lynx have success to boast about.

The University of MinnesotaâÄôs revenue sports âÄî football, menâÄôs basketball and menâÄôs hockey âÄî had down years last year, adding to the collective angst.

While your neighbors across the eastern border celebrate the good fortunes of their teams, it may be easier to bury your head in your hands than deal with the embarrassing reality.

Contrary to what seems to be public perception, Minnesota teams donâÄôt all dwell in ignominy.

If youâÄôre looking for teams with the best chances of winning, look no further. IâÄôve evaluated the chances of the five Gophers fall sports teams celebrating a Big Ten title this year.

HereâÄôs the list, in order of likelihood:

 

1. MenâÄôs cross country

Dismiss them and other non-revenue Olympic sports if you want, but this team can win it all. TheyâÄôre lead by a running superstar âÄî six-time All-American Hassan Mead âÄî and have enviable depth to boot.

Head coach Steve Plasencia is in his 17th year leading the long-distance runners. Just last spring he had a streak of five straight Big Ten track and field titles snapped.

Every team qualifies for the cross country Big Ten championships. A runnerâÄôs place in the race equates to how many points he adds to his team, so the better the finish the lower the score.

The team with the lowest total score is declared Big Ten champion.

Perennial rivals Wisconsin (No. 2) and Indiana (No. 7) stand in the way of the No. 12 Gophers.

It would take a lot to unseat those two juggernauts, but Minnesota has earned its top-12 national ranking this season.

 

2. WomenâÄôs cross country

Like its male counterparts, the womenâÄôs team is lead by a standout in senior Steph Price. Mead received his second Big Ten Runner of the Week on Tuesday, while Price earned her third.

Minnesota is one of five or six teams that have a legitimate shot at the title. Several of those teams âÄî Michigan State, Michigan, Penn State and Iowa âÄî outrank the Gophers in the latest national poll.

Minnesota was ranked No. 21 as recently as last week and the consensus top team in the conference, MSU, is ranked No. 15.

The Gophers dropped from the top-30 after a poor showing last week, but still have potential with a deep roster to take a swipe at the Big Ten Championship.

Every team in the conference qualifies for the meet, and what happened during the season is irrelevant come race day.

 

3. Soccer (3-3-2 Big Ten)

Minnesota is a middle-of-the-pack team in a lot of statistical categories, including the only one that matters: wins.

What the team has going for it, though, is the tournament format.

This is a squad that made the Sweet Sixteen last season, but graduated a lot of talent. It brought in a good freshman class âÄî including the teamâÄôs leading scorer, Taylor Uhl âÄî with mixed results.

The future may be brighter for the program than the present, as it likely wonâÄôt live up to its billing from a year ago.

It would be surprising to see the team win a conference title after its mediocre season, but it has played some of the conferenceâÄôs best teams well. It also eked out a 1-0 win Sunday against last-place Northwestern, so the team is tough to peg.

The only conference game decided by more than one goal this season was a 3-0 loss to third-place Michigan State.

With all the games being so close, the Gophers could get hot at the right time this year and get a few breaks in the Big Ten tournament, which would also set them up well for another NCAA tournament run.

DonâÄôt bet on it.

 

4. Volleyball (4-4 Big Ten)

While the team may be more talented than the soccer squad, itâÄôs less likely to win a Big Ten title.

There is no postseason Big Ten tournament in volleyball, so the regular season decides the winner. The GophersâÄô up-and-down start has left them at a disadvantage.

Since Illinois and Nebraska are undefeated in conference play (8-0), Minnesota has an uphill battle the rest of the way.

If they were in any other conference, the Gophers would have an easier run to a regular-season title.

The Big Ten is not just any conference, though.

Especially with the addition of Nebraska, the Big Ten is head and shoulders above other conferences in terms of top talent and depth.

While there is still plenty of time left in conference play, it would be a tall task for Minnesota to rally and catch teams ahead of it, especially given those teams may well have a deeper pool of talent.

The strange thing about Big Ten volleyball is that the Gophers could finish in the middle of the pack and still make a serious run in the NCAA tournament. ThatâÄôs how good the conference is, and being battle-tested by the time the national tournament rolls around may be a boon.

 

5. Football (0-2 Big Ten)

With the addition of Nebraska, the Big Ten will add a conference playoff this year, which will pit the winner of the Legends division against that of the Leaders.

Whichever team within the divisions has the best regular season conference record will represent that division in a Big Ten championship game.

It would take nothing short of a miracle for the Gophers to even play in that game.

The first of many obstacles is SaturdayâÄôs homecoming game against national powerhouse Nebraska.

In a Minnesota Daily sports poll, 35 percent of responders picked the Cornhuskers to win the conference and play in the Rose Bowl. Forty-four percent said Wisconsin.

With those two teams playing in opposite divisions, the natural preseason conclusion was that they would play each other in the title game. Illinois and Penn State have also played well.

Regardless of who represents the conference at seasonâÄôs end, itâÄôs safe to say the Gophers football team is several years out from being considered serious contenders.