Tue Oct 28 05:00pm EDT
Breaking down the surprise winners you still don't trust down the stretch.
In lieu of this week's "Life on the Margins," I give you Gophers. Less than a year removed from closing out one of the truly rotten campaigns in Big Ten history, Minnesota's win at Purdue Saturday means the Gophers are entering November 7-1, 3-1 in the Big Ten, and one Penn State mishap from hoarding in on the Lions' path to the Rose Bowl. It's like Illinois' worst-to-first run to Pasadena last year, except Minnesota's 'worst' was even worse than the Illini's, and -- by record, anyway -- the Gophers are closer to first in the conference than Illinois ever actually was. Certainly no one saw anything like this coming.
Besides being stunning based on everything we knew about Minnesota coming into the year, that record is very good, and also lousy with red flags:
• The Schedule. Iowa, Wisconsin and Northwestern are still ahead; Penn State, Michigan State and their combined 16-2 record are conspicuously absent. With Saturday's visitor, Northwestern, out of the polls this week following a loss to Indiana, it's very possible the Gophers can cruise to an 11-1 record without beating a single ranked team, like a less gaudy version of last year's Kansas Jayhawks (What is it with Glen Mason's former haunts? Hire this man, then fire him, take it easy outside the conference, get lucky with the tough conference teams you don't have to play and reap the rewards). The only Gopher victim so far with a winning record is Northern Illinois, which led Minnesota in the opener with less than 30 seconds to play before Minny punched in the winning touchdown. Even the I-AA (Montana State) and other mid-major patsies (Bowling Green and Florida Atlantic) are sitting at .500 or worse, as is Illinois following the Illini's loss to reeling Wisconsin.
• The 'Margins' Thing. Aside from Florida Atlantic and, to a lesser extent, Purdue, the Gophers haven't exactly overwhelmed anyone. Their deficits in total yards and yards per play are small enough to call "Push," but not many teams are able to turn "Push" on a down-by-down basis into 7-1 in the big picture. How do you win when you're outgained by two full yards per play? Control the plays: against Indiana, Minnesota ran 81 plays to the Hoosiers' 48 and effectively took away an entire quarter in time of possession. How do you win while being outgained by 238 yards on the road? As I covered two weeks ago, it helps to get a pair of gift turnovers by Illinois inside its own 10-yard line, along with a missed field goal and a touchdown taken off the board on fourth down (a call I agree with, for the record, but which wasn't inevitable).
• The Turnover Margin. Plus-15 is the best number in the country, but it's hard to trust any team that rides the giveaway/takeaway fairy to the bank. Minnesota led the nation in turnover margin under Glen Mason in 2006, too, eking out a bowl game by finishing +18, then immediately collapsed in '07 when that fortune didn't go its way again. Last year's national turnover leader, eerily, was Kansas, which also lost the only game it finished in the red (against Missouri). This year, KU is 1-3 when finishing in the 'Minus' column, where the only win was the frantic second half comeback over bottom dweller Iowa State. 2006 turnover leader TCU fell from 11-2 to a disappointing 8-5 with a negative margin in '07. Big turnover margins are hard to sustain
This same backslide can happen within a season, too: if the well dries up, I wouldn't expect the Gophers to win any of their last four based on the way they're actually playing offense and defense (except perhaps at Michigan, where the Wolverines have been far too sloppy to oblige that hypothetical).
Stretch Run Trust Level: Moderate, at best. The aspect that's clearly improved is the defense, which went from atrocious on a historic level to merely middle-of-the-pack, a dramatic leap over a single season. But the overall effect is the same -- the Gophers have improved from rock-bottom to average and parlayed a suspicious glut of fortune (seriously, 12 fumble recoveries in eight games?) into a nice record and a spot in the top-25 with no visible improvement on offense. Statistically, the offense has actually regressed compared to last year's numbers.
Give them credit for winning nine or ten or however many it ends up being. But if there's even a hint of a campaign to draft Minnesota into the BCS with 10 or 11 wins, please, for the sake of the game that would have to accept them and those precious three hours of your New Year, ignore it.