The Minnesota Golden Gopher football team is coming off a disappointing three-win season.
This year should be different with an easier schedule and most starters returning.
New head coach Jerry Kill is in charge of turning the Gophers around and getting it back to where the program was when the Associated Press released its first weekly poll in 1934.
Kill is not the only new head coach in the Big Ten joining Kevin Wilson at Indiana, Brady Hoke at Michigan and Luke Fickell at Ohio State.
The real headline of the 2011 Big Ten Conference season is the addition of the Nebraska Cornhuskers.
The Big Ten now has 12 teams and two divisions, the controversial Legends and Leaders Divisions.
The Gophers will play the other five teams in the Legends Division and crossover-rival Wisconsin Badgers every year.
Here are my predictions for the 2011 season.
No. 1 – Nebraska Cornhuskers (7-1 Big Ten, 11-1 overall). The Huskers have a competitive, but not difficult schedule with four easily winnable non-conference games and a conference schedule that features home games against Michigan State and Ohio State with the most difficult game being a road contest in Wisconsin. The Huskers would earn the tiebreaker over Michigan State for the right to play in the inaugural Big Ten title game. A win there and the Huskers are heading to Pasadena to take on the Pac 12 champion in the Rose Bowl.
No. 2 – Michigan State Spartans (7-1, 11-1). The Spartans control their own destiny and are heading toward a National Championship bid, but a trip to Lincoln ends that hope. The Spartans rebound and win their remaining games to earn a spot in a different BCS bowl game.
No. 3 – Iowa Hawkeyes (5-3, 9-3) The Hawkeyes never sit where they are expected. They either overachieve or underachieve. This season the expectations are not high, so a nine-win season and trip to a good bowl sound about right. Four easy non-conference games and favorable cross-division games make nine wins attainable.
No. 4 – Minnesota Golden Gophers (4-4, 7-5). Seven wins for Kill in his first season is not the popular pick, but a 3-1 non-conference record and four conference wins should not be hard for the Gophers to reach. With three rivalry trophies on the line, I expect one to return to the Minnesota campus.
No. 5 – Northwestern Wildcats (2-6, 6-6). The Wildcats have one the conference’s best quarterbacks, but have a lot of holes elsewhere. Four easy non-conference games and a favorable conference schedule will get the Wildcats to six wins.
No. 6 – Michigan Wolverines (1-7, 4-8). The Wolverines are a very trendy pick to have a good season. Hoke is a good coach, but he is playing with the previous coaching staff’s players and a defense that was horrible at best. The offensive players were recruited for the spread option and now the offense will be more pro-style. Changing a defensive coordinator will not help the defense enough to get the Wolverines to a bowl game.
Big Ten Bowl Schedule
Rose Bowl: Nebraska vs. Pac 12 opponent
Yet to be determined BCS Bowl: Michigan State vs. TBD opponent
Capital One Bowl: Ohio State vs. SEC opponent
Outback Bowl: Wisconsin vs. SEC opponent
Gator Bowl: Iowa vs. SEC opponent
Insight Bowl: Illinois vs. Big 12 opponent
Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas: Minnesota vs. Big 12 opponent
TicketCity Bowl: Penn State vs. Big 12 opponent
Little Caesars Bowl: Northwestern vs. MAC opponent