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Bigger things were expected of Minnesota last year, but that wasn't the case as the Gophers closed the year with just two conference wins playing in the Big Ten West. Getting to a bowl game for the fourth-straight year was nice, but beating Central Michigan isn't going to excite too many people. With Jerry Kill gone, Tracy Claeys steps in for a full-time role and fans are expecting Claeys to continue what Kill did with the football program.
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The offense remains a sizeable question for the Gophers as they continue to struggle on that side of the field. Last year's starting quarterback Mitch Leidner (59.5% completion, 14 TDs, 11 INTs) is back, but it wouldn't be surprising if Claeys tried someone else like Demry Croft or Seth Green. The running game is still the strong suit of the offense with Shannon Brooks (709 yards, 7 TDs) and Rodney Smith (670 yards) both returning to the backfield.
However, there is a question on the offensive line with only two starters returning. Left tackle is still a question, but after bringing in two guys from the junior college ranks, Minnesota will have some pieces to work with. Another spot where players need to step up at is receiver with KJ Maye (73 receptions) gone. Drew Wolitarsky (39 receptions, 524 yards, 3 TDs) is expected to slide into the top role, with Eric Carter and Rashad Still getting more playing time.
The defense is usually stout for the Gophers, but they are losing most of their talent on the line and both of their cornerbacks. Replacing their consistent corners will be key as that's been a trademark of this defense in recent years. Senior Jalen Myrick likely steps into one of the spots with KiAnte Hardin and Antonio Shenault fighting for time at the other one. The front seven is in a similar situation with the Gophers needing new names to step into starting roles, whether it's guys like Steven Richardson or Andrew Stelter along the line, someone will have to plug the holes and get pressure. Linebackers Jack Lynn and Cody Poock have to lead the group.
Playing in the West, there is always a chance to win the division, and Minnesota falls into that conversation. With three home games in non-conference play, the Gophers could easily enter the conference campaign undefeated. Unfortunately, they start with a trip to Penn State and then host Iowa. From there, the Gophers will have opportunities to win a few games in a row before closing the season with tough road games at Nebraska and Wisconsin.
Minnesota wasn't bad last year, they just couldn't close out games, losing to Michigan by three points and Iowa by five. With a favorable schedule from the East, the Gophers will have a shot to compete, but that means taking a game from the likes of Iowa or upsetting one of the better West teams on the road.
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2016 Minnesota Gophers Football Schedule
Sept. 1 vs. Oregon State
Sept 10 vs. Indiana State
Sept. 24 vs. Colorado State
Oct. 1 at Penn State
Oct. 8 vs. Iowa
Oct. 15 at Maryland
Oct. 22 vs. Rutgers
Oct. 29 at Illinois
Nov. 5 vs. Purdue
Nov. 12 at Nebraska
Nov. 19 vs. Northwestern
Nov. 26 at Wisconsin
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