[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="614"] Smiling on a football field in Minnesota as the home team...it's been rare.[/caption]
The replacement refs are the talk of the sports world right now, but I jumped the gun and talked about them last week. I am bored with it, even if I am still chuckling at the fact that the Packers are the ones that got screwed. Instead of riding the negative train, today let's focus on the positives that are happening in football on this side of the 'Sconnie/'Sota border for once.
What is that weird feeling emanating out of downtown Minneapolis? (I think feelings can emanate...) Is that positivity surrounding Minnesota football, both professional and collegiate? Can't be! There is no way that two teams that went a combined 6-22 last year could be both looking at post season play without being laughed at. Yet, here we are. A year ago today the Gophers were 1-3 coming off a 37-24 loss to North Dakota State...at home, while the Vikings were 0-3 and coming off a 3 point loss to the Lions...at home. What a difference a year makes!
What has changed a year later to make these teams now a combined 6-1?Not much in terms of personnel, and that is where I draw most of my optimism while at the same time have to temper some of my expectations of these two squads. The Gophers are still coached by Jerry Kill, a guy that looks like he knows that being a college football coach is more than just taglines and pure optimism...unlike his predecessor. The Vikings still have Leslie Frazier whose expression actually changed for the first time in his tenure with the Vikings in the win over the 49ers, thanks to the replacement refs giving John Harbaugh time outs and anything else he wanted probably out of fear he'd murder them if they opposed. So the leadership is the same for both and the quarterbacks haven't changed much from a year ago either.
Ponder was still a back up a year ago to McNabb, but he got his chance last year and it was underwhelming. Through three weeks though, Ponder looks like a smart QB with poise who could develop into the franchise signal caller and live up to his high 1st round pick status. For the Gophers, Marqueis Gray is back and is still his athletic self, with an erratic arm. Gray is also still backed up by Max Shortell, now a sophomore, in a game and a half of injury relief for Gray, Shortell is looking like a pure pocket passer who, with some more time to develop, could be one of the better passing QB's in the Big Ten (which may not be saying much).
Outside of some small moves here and there, the rest of the Vikings and Gophers were part of the losing products a year ago.
There weren't any major acquisitions for the Vikings, unless you think Jerome Simpson is major...and if you do you're wrong. Not to say he can't have a big impact, but the signing made little, to no noise throughout the league itself. The Gophers didn't pull in any 5 star recruits, though a few freshmen are contributing. The talent that each team had in place has matured some in one year and through the first few weeks of each team's seasons we are seeing the fruits of that maturation.
The Gophers very young offensive line is creating holes for a running game, the likes of which we haven't seen since Glen Mason was roaming the sidelines. For the Vikings, likely Ponder's maturation is the biggest thing that has helped this team get to where it is so far, and "so far" isn't very far. It is one big win this week that has created all of this optimism, that win coming only a week removed from losing to the worst team in football a year ago in the Colts. But, it was a BIG win.
Looking at the divisions and conferences of these two teams in this season thus far, you see more reason for optimism. The Big Ten's top teams don't look as dominant as many believed they would be coming into the season. The NFC North's predicted big boys are also flailing around early on, with the Packers (controversially) 1-2 along with the Detroit Lions with injured (?) Matt Stafford. The favorite's struggles leave the Vikings tied for first place in the division with the Chicago Bears who look rather beatable.
Now to tame our Gopher expectations a bit, the Gophers haven't exactly beaten the best that college football can offer. Syracuse was their best win and it ended up being kind of a tight affair, 17-10. They are going to lose some in the Big Ten season, but they only need to win two more games to be bowl eligible, and with the way the other Big Ten teams are playing you can make an argument that the Gophers COULD win any game left on their schedule. Meaning that they SHOULD sneak out at least two more wins and get to a bowl game, however meaningless you think that now has become with 1000 different bowl games out there, in Coach Kill's second year. We aren't world beaters yet, wow I am SHOCKED, but we have improved in a short time and that my friends breeds confidence that can be built on and hopefully then built into something even more substantial.
Both teams still have issues. Both teams are years away from title contention but that is OK for fans of these two. Gopher fans are used to being nothing but bottom feeders and an afterthought in the Big Ten. While up to last Sunday, the Vikings have only been in the national news for negatives starting when Favre threw that interception in the Super Dome on January 24, 2010. We were due for some good things to happen to these two teams at the same time, even if they only share this positive feeling for just one week.