Gophers must reverse trend and finish strong

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

For the last decade or so, Minnesota has had the luxury of being able to pile up early wins and still reach bowl games despite late-season slides.

Since 1998, the Gophers own a 46-29 record in games played before Oct. 20. Soft nonconference schedules certainly helped, and Minnesota typically started well in Big Ten play.

After Oct. 20, the picture isn't so pretty. Minnesota has gone 23-36 in games played on Oct. 20 or later during the same time span. The trend certainly continued last season, as Minnesota started 7-1 before dropping its final five games.

Given the way the schedule is changing, the Gophers need to put a stop to this pattern right now.

The era of cupcake scheduling appears to be over at Minnesota, thanks to head coach Tim Brewster and athletic director Joel Maturi. Minnesota faces California and Air Force this season, USC in 2010 and 2011 and most likely Texas somewhere in the distant future.

"This year's schedule is unbelievably attractive," Maturi said last month at the Big Ten spring meetings. "And then we play Southern Cal. It's been very well received. Now if we go get our butts kicked, I don't know how well it would be received. But I do believe it's what we aspire to be. It helps our recruiting and hopefully, we'll rise to the occasion and play competitive football."

The good news is Minnesota has the type of team that should improve rather than regress during the course of the 2009 season.

There's a ton of talent on offense, particularly at wide receiver and quarterback. The running back position should also be better with the return of Duane Bennett. But there also is a significant scheme change under new coordinator Jedd Fisch. The offensive line will need time to settle in, and that's why Minnesota could have some trouble against Air Force, Cal and Northwestern.

The defense also has a new coordinator in Kevin Cosgrove, its third in as many years. Minnesota boasts playmakers in the secondary (Traye Simmons, Marcus Sherels) and good experience up front (Garrett Brown, Eric Small, Cedric McKinley), but an adjustment period is also expected here.

Minnesota's season will hinge on its ability to adjust -- to schemes, to coaches, to new personnel groups and most importantly, to the ebb and flow of the season. A slow start is possible, and if so, the Gophers must show greater mental toughness than they have in past seasons. Their conference road schedule is brutal -- Penn State, Ohio State, Iowa and Northwestern -- but there are opportunities to do damage at home.

Finishing strong will be paramount for a program that hasn't done so much in recent years. If Minnesota wants to take the next step, it needs to be playing its best football in November.