It's time to dive back into our series examining whether Big Ten teams will be contenders or pretenders in the 2013 season. The series does not include Ohio State, Michigan or Nebraska -- three teams that, in our view, have earned the "contender" label entering the fall. For each team, we'll make a case for why they're contenders and pretenders and provide our final verdict.
Next up: Minnesota.
Why they're contenders: Jerry Kill's previous teams have taken off in his third year as head coach. Southern Illinois, which went 1-10 his first year, finished 10-2 in Year 3. At Northern Illinois, Kill guided the Huskies to a 10-3 mark in his third season. Are the Gophers about to make a similar leap? They made it to a bowl game last season, and though they stumbled down the stretch of the regular season, they bounced back with a strong showing in the Meineke Car Care Bowl loss to Texas Tech. In that game, Minnesota showed off a power-run game that should be the offensive philosophy going forward. The team has gotten better in the trenches since Kill took over, and should have an experienced offensive line and two good running backs (Donnell Kirkwood and Rodrick Williams) to pound the rock. Quarterback Philip Nelson showed flashes of brilliance as a true freshman and should be better for it as a sophomore, with Mitch Leidner pushing him. Ra'Shede Hageman looks like one of the top defensive linemen in the Big Ten, and the back end of the defense is in good hands with safety Brock Vereen and cornerback Derrick Wells. Kill should finally have more depth and better overall athleticism to work with. The preconference schedule is very soft and ought to have the Gophers off to a confidence-building 4-0 start. This could be your Big Ten sleeper team in 2013.
Why they're pretenders: Minnesota is improving, no doubt. But the rebuilding project needs more time before the Gophers are ready to play with the big boys in the Big Ten. Nelson is precocious, but he's still just a true sophomore with a half-season's worth of experience, and the Gophers' weapons at wide receiver are suspect. Minnesota still needs to develop a downfield passing game, something it lacked most of last season. There are also major questions at linebacker, though junior college transfer Damien Wilson should help, and the defense must make up for the loss of top pass-rusher D.L. Wilhite from a year ago. While the overall depth is getting better, a few key injuries would still be devastating. But the biggest thing separating Minnesota from contender status is probably the depth in the Legends Division. Michigan, Nebraska and Northwestern will all be Top 25 teams to start the season, and Michigan State should be improved. The Gophers play at both Michigan schools and at Northwestern, and must play Penn State and Wisconsin -- the latter of which they haven't beaten since 2004 -- from the other division. The gap is closing between Minnesota and the top teams in the league, but it's still there.
Verdict: Pretender. Minnesota should get back to a bowl, especially with four nonconference wins all but gift-wrapped for them. But while the Gophers could surprise a few teams in the league, asking them to climb over all the other Legends powers is too much at this point.