Big Ten season preview: Minnesota Golden Gophers

Tracy Claeys and the Golden Gophers are a dark-horse contender in the West Division in 2016. Paul Vernon/AP Photo

Minnesota isn’t starting from scratch.

Even heading into his first full season as a head coach, Tracy Claeys isn’t exactly a rookie, either.

The torch has been passed to Claeys from Jerry Kill, of course, and that change at the top will have an impact as the former puts his own stamp on the program. But the two of them had been working together to build the roster up and turn the Gophers into an annual contender in the West Division, and this was the kind of year they were pointing toward when they arrived.

“We have five years invested in the program and the group of kids we've got,” Claeys said at Big Ten media days. “We're definitely looking forward to the season and competing in one of the toughest conferences, if not the toughest conference, week in, week out.

“We're going to enter the season with what I think is our best football team since we've been here.”

Just what exactly is that roster capable of this season? The Gophers might just be a dark-horse contender in the West Division as they take their turn with the Big Ten preview series rolling along.

2015 record: (6-7, 2-6 Big Ten)

Key losses: LB De’Vondre Campbell, DE Theiren Cockran, CB Eric Murray, CB Briean Boddy-Calhoun, WR KJ Maye, LT Foster Bush

Key returners: QB Mitch Leidner, LB Jack Lynn, RB Rodney Smith, WR Drew Wolitarsky, TE Nate Wozniak, DB Damarius Travis

Instant impact freshman: There is no debate about the top prize in Minnesota’s most recent signing class, and Carter Coughlin’s athleticism could put him in position to contribute early after electing to join the in-state program. Just how much of a mark the Eden Prairie, Minnesota product can make as a true freshman remains to be seen as he adjusts to the speed of the game in the Big Ten. But if the ESPN 300 defender lives up to his advanced billing, that shouldn’t be much of a problem for him.

Most important game: Until the Gophers can finally reclaim Paul Bunyan’s Axe, the matchup that must be circled every season simply won’t change. So no matter what else might be on the line, whether Claeys has his team contending as a dark horse in the West or is just trying to get into a bowl game, the regular-season finale against rival Wisconsin is the most crucial for Minnesota. The losing streak was pushed to 12 games with a 10-point home loss a year ago, and snapping it on the road against the Badgers won’t be easy -- but there will certainly be no shortage of motivation for the Gophers to try to do it.

Upset special: The turnaround from a program with a coach on the hot seat to West Division champs happened remarkably fast, and Iowa has earned the right to be the odds-on favorite to claim that crown this season. But just as there were doubts about their credentials even during the run a year ago, it’s fair to wonder if the Hawkeyes are capable of surviving another regular season in the increasingly competitive Big Ten without a loss -- particularly when they have to go on the road to defend another trophy. The Gophers have a senior quarterback, a veteran defense and a hungry coaching staff all looking to get their hands on the Floyd of Rosedale again, and if they’re going to be a factor in the West, Oct. 8 could be the date that reveals their potential.

Best-case scenario: After getting the short end of the scheduling stick a year ago, the scale has balanced itself out this season for the Gophers. None of the Big Three from the East Division are on the slate, and the toughest road game from the other half of the league will be an early visit to Penn State to open conference action. If the Gophers can handle their business at home and generate some momentum heading into November, a 10-win campaign and a potential spot in the Big Ten title game could be within reach for Claeys.

Worst-case scenario: This isn’t the first offseason where the development of Leidner has been under the microscope, and if the Gophers can’t take the next step in the passing game, it might be too much to expect them to contend late in the year in the West. The schedule is favorable enough that Minnesota should be in position to get to another bowl game just by holding serve at TCF Bank Stadium. But if Iowa lives up to the preseason billing or Northwestern’s stout defense produce home losses for the Gophers, the bottom could drop all the way to 5-7 at the end of Claeys’ first full season.