The UNLV Rebels open up their season on the road against the Minnesota Golden Gophers. The game kicks off at 7:00 P.M. ET and can be seen on the Big Ten Network.
Coach: Jerry Kill (9-16, two years)
2012 Record: (6-7, 2-6 in Big Ten)
2012 Season in Review: Last season was another step in Jerry Kill's rebuilding process (or should I say building process since the Gophers haven't been relevant for quite a while), as Minnesota racked up 3 more wins from the previous season for a 6-7 record. Minnesota started the season 4-0 with wins over the likes of New Hampshire, Western Michigan, and yes UNLV. The Gophers beat UNLV in Vegas in an entertaining triple overtime game in last year's season opener for both squads. Then Big Ten play hit. Minnesota's only victories in conference season came against Purdue and on the road against Illinois. Every other loss, with the exception of the Northwestern game, was by 16 or more points (meaning it wasn't a close game). They capped off this season with their first bowl berth since 2009, but it didn't end well as the Gophers lost 34-31 to Texas Tech.
Returning Offensive Starters: 10
Returning Defensive Starters: 7
Key Returning Starters: QB Phillip Nelson, RB Donnell Kirkwood, WR Isaac Fruechte, WR Derrick Engel, CB Derrick Wells, LB Aaron Hill, DE Ra'Shede Hageman
2013 Strengths: The offense returns 10 starters, which is huge for a team looking to make the jump from a borderline bowl team to an 8 or 9 win season. With both Donnell Kirkwood and Rodrick Williams back for the a Minnesota running game that was certainly the strength of this offense, running the football isn't going to be an issue. Neither is blocking, as all five starters return from a line that only allowed 21 sacks last season and paved the way for those running backs.
While the offense returns a ton of starters and looks to improve, defense was the strength of last season's team. The Gophers finished fifth in the Big Ten in total defense (358 yards per game), something not easily accomplished. The secondary should not be an issue as they return three key players, including cornerback Derrick Wells (74 tackles, 2 INT's). The front seven should play well too, led by Defensive End Ra'Shede Hageman who had 35 tackles and 6 sacks last season.
2013 Weaknesses: One weakness for the Gophers, and it's a pretty big one, is their quarterback play. Jerry Kill's staff has struggled to get good quarterback play, and last season was no exception. Minnesota finished ninth in the Big Ten in passing offense with only about 170 yards per game. They were led freshman Phillip Nelson, who started the final seven games of the season for Minnesota. Nelson struggled with accuracy and turnovers, only completing 49 percent of his passes and putting 8 TD's and 8 INT's - not a good TD:INT ratio. If Nelson doesn't improve, then the Minnesota offense will more than likely become one dimensional, making it difficult to make any real progress. It certainly doesn't help that 6 of the 8 teams they will face in the Big Ten have winning records, and defense that can load up against the run.
Overview: With how much talent they have returning, the Gophers certainly have the opportunity to improve their win total to 8 or 9 this season, but it all hinges on quarterback play. The defense should be just as stout, if not more, as last season's and the running game will be right where it needs to be. The protection will be there for a young quarterback in Phillip Nelson, and he's going to have to take advantage of that to play much better football if the Gophers are going to stay close with some of the better teams in the Big Ten.
For more information on Minnesota, head over to The Daily Gopher and Off Tackle Empire.