With the football season getting close, it's time to check in with MSU's upcoming opponents. In the weeks leading up to the season, we'll have a short Q&A with a blogger from each opposing school. Last up: Minnesota. Tom runs the great Minnesota blog, The Daily Gopher. He was gracious enough to answer some questions about the upcoming season and "Hockeytown" vs. the "State of Hockey."
1. The first year under Jerry Kill had some good moments and a lot of bad moments. What are realistic expectations for the Gophers this year?
I know it is a gross generalization but for the most part the bad stuff occurred early and the team started started playing much better in the second half of the year. The two Big Ten wins over Iowa and Illinois were therapeutic and even in their losses (except the Wisconsin game) we were competitive, including the Michigan State game. Last year gave us some momentum and hope into the offseason.
What does that mean for 2012? I don't know, the one thing I am sure about is that program improvement is not necessarily a linear process. Real improvement may not necessarily translate into two extra wins this year and then two more the next. I do fully expect more non-conference wins this year and I expect fewer ass-whoopings in the final eight games. We should not be losing to the likes of New Mexico State and North Dakota State, which this year translates to UNLV and New Hampshire. I do not expect to see us give up 41+ points four times (losing those four games by a combined 186-44).
I expect a more competitive team on the field. That may translate into more wins, maybe in the six or seven win range, or it just may translate into an improved product that still can't get more than three or four wins.
2. Everyone knows about Mar'Queis Gray, but who are some other players on both sides of the ball to watch for?
Offensively there are a number of questions marks but potentially some answers, but they are young. Devin Crawford-Tufts played as a true freshman last year and, like the rest of the team, started to really contribute and "get it" on the field. He is a former state champ in the 100 and 200, has good size and should be primed to be a legitimate target. But a couple of true freshman receivers may be the two most talented offensive players outside of Gray. Andre McDonald and Jamel Harbison are going to be very good, but they are true freshman so I'm not sure how much we can count on them but they will be a part of the offense from day one.
Defensively there are a handful of guys capable of having breakout seasons, but none have shown it yet. Here I'm looking more at a few upper-classmen who could finally establish themselves as some of the better players at their position. But again, they need to improve and, more importantly, they need to be more consistent. Ra'Shede Hageman is as physically gifted as any DT in the Big Ten, Troy Stoudermire is a very good cover-corner who missed last year but was given an extra year to compete, Keanon Cooper has the tools to be a very good OLB and Mike Rallis making the move inside to MLB is going to be a good opportunity to make a lot of plays. First team All-Big Teners? Highly unlikely but names worth watching and certainly the guys that this defense will be counting on.
3. Do Gopher fans regret the firing of Glen Mason? What was the reaction when he was fired back in 2006?
I think in 2006 it was time for him to go. He put very little effort into recruiting and his defenses usually sucked. He managed to orchestrate colossal collapses and I think nearly everyone believed he had taken the program as far as he was capable of taking it. I still think firing him was the right decision. The wrong decisions were giving him a big contract extension the year prior and then hiring Tim Brewster. Those decisions are regrettable, letting mediocre Mason go is not. With that said, he did have Greg Jones committed to Minnesota (Jones switched to MSU after Mason's firing) and JJ Watt had also committed to Mason. Imagine had those two stuck with their commitment, maybe Mason would have taken us to another level. More likely Jones would have been moved to RB and Watt to TE, defense still would have sucked.
4. It's a few years old now, but how important was the building of TCF Bank Stadium?
It is really a huge boost to the athletic department. I think it helps a little with recruiting still, not a ton but a little. Winning still trumps a cool stadium, but nice facilities certainly helps. Ticket sales are lagging, but again winning will help that more than anything else. More than anything else it is a huge boost in revenue for the program and it will get a bigger boost of revenue when the Vikings spend a season (or two) playing there in 2015 (maybe 2014 as well). If Kill can get this team winning, even just back to the level of Mason winning four non-conf games and then a two or three Big Ten games, then the seats will be filled and recruiting will pick up.
5. Does the state of Minnesota get annoyed with the "Hockeytown" name given to Detroit? Obviously both states are two of the best when it comes to hockey, but do Minnesotans look down at hockey in the state of Michigan?
Hockeytown? I think when people think of Detroit "Hockeytown" is one of the last things people think about. Besides you can have your town, we are "The State of Hockey!" so we've got that going for us. After this year when the Gophers win the NCAA title and the Wild win Lord Stanley's Cup, people might forget that they even play hockey Michigan. Really, I don't care (I'm a basketball guy).
Thanks again to Tom for taking the time to answer some questions. We'll check back in with him during game week. Until then, make sure you check out The Daily Gopher for all your Minnesota info.