NCAA Football Preview - Minnesota Golden Gophers

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Updated: 8/20/2013 10:52 am

After a 4-0 start, they suffered consecutive losses to Iowa, Northwestern and Wisconsin, while scoring only 13 points in each contest. They also went on to lose to Michigan, Nebraska and Michigan State, finishing 2-6 in conference play.

Still, the Golden Gophers notched enough victories to earn a date with Texas Tech in the Meineke Car Care Bowl. They put up a good fight in that game but ultimately lost, 34-31, on a last-second field goal.

Despite the end result, head coach Jerry Kill liked the brand of hard-nosed football his team put on the field, and he has used that as a stepping stone into the 2013 campaign.

At the Big Ten Media Day, coach Kill also provided a positive update about his ongoing bout with epilepsy, which caused him to be hospitalized following a loss to Northwestern on Oct. 13. He also missed the second half against Michigan State after suffering another seizure in the locker room at halftime.

"I'm doing great. Things are going great for me," Kill said. "I've got a great doctor that is a specialist in epilepsy. And I've been doing great, looking forward to the season, and I feel like I'm in the best shape of my life."

2013 ANALYSIS:

OFFENSE: Minnesota ranked 94th in the nation in points per game (22.08) and 108th in total offense (321.4 ypg), and the offensive line was hit with some injuries over the summer. Still, the team is awfully deep in the trenches, and a total of 10 starters are slated to return on the offensive side of the ball.

The most integral of those starters is quarterback Philip Nelson, who gained valuable experience last season stepping in for injured starter MarQueis Gray.

"We pulled the redshirt off of Philip in the middle of the year," coach Kill said. "And he certainly played valuable time for us in the last six ball games and did very well. It was a great growing process for him. I think it leads us in to this season where we're not trying to break somebody in."

Kill also has a pair of big, strong backs in Donnell Kirkwood (925 yards) and Rodrick Williams (261 yards). Kill likened that duo to something of a throwback to the physical-style running backs who have come through the program.

DEFENSE: The Gophers were a middle-of-the-pack defense in 2012, and the competition only gets tougher in 2013.

Lost from this unit, among others, is end D.L. Wilhite, who led the team in sacks and tackles for loss. But along the interior, senior tackle Ra'Shede Hageman (35 tackles, 6.0 sacks) returns and is coming off an All-Big Ten season.

Aaron Hill (74 tackles, 2 INT) is the only holdover at linebacker, although the team did recruit heavily at the position. In the secondary, both of last year's starting cornerbacks are gone, including Michael Carter, who led the team with four picks and 15 pass breakups. Derrick Wells moved from safety to corner in the offseason after notching 74 tackles and a pair of interceptions, while Brock Vereen (64 tackles, 2 INT) and Cedric Thornton (43 tackles) assume both safety spots.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Senior kicker Chris Hawthorne, who has started in the past, is in line to replace last year's starter, Jordan Wettstein. Punter Christian Eldred returns and will look to improve upon his 38.1-yard average. He did manage to land 22 punts inside the opponent's 20, with only five touchbacks. Return specialist Troy Stoudemire was a huge weapon in terms of field position, but he is no longer around.

OUTLOOK: Do the Golden Gophers have what it takes to earn a second straight bowl bid under third-year coach Jerry Kill?

They made it to the postseason last year despite beating only Purdue and Illinois in Big Ten play. This year, the Gophers will face Michigan, Northwestern and Michigan State on the road, while Nebraska, Penn State and Wisconsin each come to TCF Bank Stadium.

Make no mistake, if they hope to make it back to a bowl game, they'll need to navigate a tougher schedule and come up with a marquee victory or two.

To accomplish that, Nelson is going to have to take a major step forward in his sophomore season.

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