The Minnesota Golden Gophers exceeded most experts predictions and won six games in 2012.
Head coach Jerry Kill's track record would suggest another small improvement next season.
However, it isn't that easy with its best offensive player and five starters on defense graduating. Kill, offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover, defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys and the rest of the positional coaches have to get a lot of players ready to take on larger roles next season.
Showing Big Ten depth
The Gophers finished the regular season with the 10th best conference record in the Big Ten - eighth best overall record in the conference. However, bowl ineligibilities (Ohio State and Penn State due to NCAA sanctions and Iowa because it failed to win six games) and a campaign to get ahead of Purdue, the Gophers played in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas, which was sixth in the Big Ten bowl pecking order.
The reward was a game against the Texas Tech Red Raiders, who had the sixth best conference and overall record in the Big 12, in its own back yard.
The Gophers held their own and had it not made several unforced errors would have won the game.
Youth gaining experience
The Gophers played 10 true freshmen, five redshirt freshmen and nine second-year sophomores who made significant contributions this season. The Gophers even played three true freshmen midway through the year, despite having the option to redshirt still available. The offensive skilled positions are littered with first and second-year guys. True freshman quarterback Philip Nelson took the reigns of the offense with mixed results. He is the expected starter, but there is no reason to believe Mitch Leidner (who did redshirt) can't take the job from him. Rodrick Williams Jr. is a big back that should become the short-yardage and between-the-tackles running back. He is likely to continue taking carries away from Donnell Kirkwood. True freshmen Andre McDonald, K.J. Maye and Jamel Harbison combined with second-year sophomores Isaac Fruechte, Marcus Jones and Devin Crawford-Tufts form a potentially deep group. Even the tight end position has young potential matchup problems led by sophomore Drew Goodger.
There is a lot to like about the potential, but it is still potential. The talented young players still need to develop and grow.
Players of the year
The offensive MVP was MarQueis Gray. The senior from Indianapolis, Ind. was the best player on the field for the Gophers. He did it all for the Gopher offense. He ran the ball, threw the ball and caught the ball. He has very good speed and athleticism for a 6-foot-4-inch, 250-pound player.
The defensive MVP was D.L. Wilhite. The senior from Lexington, Ky. led the Gophers with 8.5 sacks and 11 tackles-for-a-loss. He gave the Gophers a legitimate pass rushing threat. The Gophers are improving as a unit at getting to the quarterback, but Wilhite was the most improved.
The special teams MVP was Troy Stoudermire. The senior from Dallas set the NCAA record for career kick return yards during the opening kickoff off the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas. The big plays may not have been there for the defensive back, but he recorded a 23.3 yard average.
The top offensive newcomer was Josh Campion. The redshirt freshman from Fergus Falls was the only member of the offensive line to start all 13 game this season. He solidified the right side of the offensive line and was a big part of the Gophers run domination in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas.
The top defensive newcomer was Scott Ekpe. The true freshman from Lewisville, Texas only had 14 tackles, but he played very well as one of the top reserves on the defensive line. He made his few tackles count with four tackles-for-a-loss. He also had a fumble recovery. He will be one of the top candidates to start at defensive tackle opposite Ra'Shede Hageman next season. He was an under-the-radar recruit that was a spring enrollee at Minnesota. He had plenty of time to learn the college game before fall practices began and took full advantage of it.
The most improved player was Michael Carter. The senior from Pompano Beach, Fla. had a very tumultuous Gopher career, but something clicked for him this season. He became a shutdown corner and had the best possible series any corner could have against Purdue this season. He knocked passes on the first two plays before intercepting the third pass attempt and returning it for a touchdown to open the third quarter.