Note: Quick Lane is supporting Disabled American Veterans (DAV) in building awareness and raising funds through the Quick Lane Bowl festivities. The Ford Motor Company Fund is leading the way with a contribution of $50,000 to DAV. The Quick Lane Bowl will donate $10 for every ticket purchased through the DAV by going to www.helpkeepthepromise.org.
Yesterday, we previewed the Central Michigan Chippewas, one of the two teams to play in the 2015 Quick Lane Bowl at Ford Field on Dec. 28. Today, we look at the other side of the ball.
The University of Minnesota was expecting to reach a higher peak. With the Big Ten West open for the taking (this was before Iowa unexpectedly turned into a juggernaut), the Golden Gophers believed they had a chance to snatch the division from the tradition powers. After 2014's final stretch, they had good reason to believe it. They took nearly every rivalry trophy they had with other Big Ten teams (and they have a lot of rivalry trophies) and terrorized Ohio State in the snow with physical play and dilly bars.
At the start of the year, you could feel it in them. In Chicago at the Big Ten Media Days, three Gophers and head coach Jerry Kill bristled with positivity. Through a sea of Big Ten West coaches -- including two new hapless heads, a challenged Kirk Ferentz and a Pat Fitzgerald desperately hoping for questions -- Jerry was the one to really capture the attention of the cameras and reporters. He chuckled as he talked about the season opening game against TCU, and how he hoped to bring some snow in by the truckload to make the game feel like Minnesota's preferred environment.
2014 was Kill's first winning season at Minnesota, and it did it through adversity. He had been forced out of coaching his team in 2013 when he suffered a seizure, and his return and full-time involvement the next season propelled his team to a 5-1 start. He was named the Big Ten Coach of the Year, and he was ready to build on the promise he had started.
But for all their toughness, Minnesota faced an even more brutal schedule in 2015. TCU was a contender early in the year for the national championship and pulled ahead of the Gophers for victory. Then Minnesota was shut out by Northwestern, and fell to Nebraska to start the season 4-3.
Then, on Oct. 28, Jerry Kill retired from football. His health problems continued to worsen. The epilepsy he battled had grown more severe, and he had to hang up his coaching responsibilities. The job fell to defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys, and with the Michigan game looming, the Gophers wanted to win one for Jerry.
The game was one of the classics of the Big Ten in 2015, but it would end in heartbreak for the Gophers. A deep throw late from Mitch Leidner put them near the goal line, but the Wolverines held their ground time and time again and Minnesota couldn't get it home in the final seconds of the game. They lost the Little Brown Jug, 29-26.
That was the start of more woes as the backloaded schedule finally began to come home to roost. Next week was Ohio State and then Iowa. Illinois provided relief right before their heated rivalry with the Wisconsin Badgers, which became another narrow loss. The Gophers ended the year 5-7.
Yes, that's right. 5-7 gets you into a bowl game now, given the dearth of bowls being arranged and the lack of winning teams to fill them. But it's still a chance for Minnesota to make something of this season. In the long haul, this was all part of Minnesota's rebuilding, a multi-year project Jerry Kill initiated -- one that now falls to Tracy Claeys, who was given the head coach position on a permanent basis. 2014 set a bar that they could not fulfill this season. They will have more chances in the future to prove their mettle, and they can start on Monday by defeating the Central Michigan Chippewas in Detroit.
Minnesota will have its weapons and strengths to bring to bear against the Chips. The Gophers secondary is loaded, if plagued by injury. Eric Murray and Briean Boddy-Calhoun make the corners and will be tasked with stopping the Central Michigan wideouts. Theiren Cockran will look to come off the corner to get pressure on Chips quarterback Cooper Rush. On the offense, Mitch Leidner has developed a respectable passing game, while the Gophers hope one of their running backs steps up and improves a rushing attack that was ranked 11th in the Big Ten and 72nd in S&P+.
The Gophers will look to make it physical. Their hopes rode with their bruising defense all year. They have to keep hoping for that here. They will want to send their seniors out right and begin building for the future. Many might argue they don't belong in a bowl game with their record, but they're in one regardless. They have that chance. They'll look for better things, and it starts by rising from the ashes here in Detroit.
For more coverage on the Minnesota Golden Gophers, visit SB Nation's Minnesota blog The Daily Gopher. Also be sure to check out Bill Connelly's statistical preview of the Quick Lane Bowl. To purchase tickets for the Quick Lane Bowl, please visit www.helpkeepthepromise.org. Remember: for every ticket purchased, Quick Lane will donate $10 to Disabled American Veterans to support and empower wounded and ill military veterans.
Date and time: Mon., Dec. 28, 5 p.m. ET
TV channel: ESPN2
Location: Ford Field, Detroit, MI.
Social Media: @Quicklanebowl #Quicklanebowl (Twitter & Instagram)