The Gophers might not be commanding much national attention, not popping up in any preseason rankings or even being talked about much as a contender in the Big Ten West.
But this is a team that a year ago came within a win of reaching the Big Ten Championship Game. It was the latest big moment in a rebuilding effort that Jerry Kill has conducted in record time.
But if Minnesota is going to take the next step in 2015, it’s going to need to take down Wisconsin. It’s that simple, and Kill knows it.
It’s why beating Wisconsin is priority No. 1 for these Gophers in 2015. If everything else goes according to plan, then the season-ending battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe should again have Big Ten title game implications.
“I think they're getting tired of it. I mean, you know, everybody in our state is getting tired of it,” Kill said last week at his preseason press conference. “The No. 1 question I get in the state when I go out and talk is, ‘We've got three trophies, but where is the Axe?’ It's not, ‘Hey, coach, so happy to have three trophies.’ It’s, ‘Where's the Axe? Where's the Axe?’ We've got to get that done. Sooner or later, I always keep saying. Sooner or later it's got to happen. I'd like it to be sooner.”
Last season, Minnesota turned in its second straight eight-win campaign. Prior to Kill’s arrival, there had been just 17 seasons of at least eight wins in program history, a history that dates back to 1892.
But as impressive as the last two seasons have been, the Gophers haven’t been able to get over the Wisconsin hump. In fact, Minnesota hasn’t been able to solve Wisconsin for decades. The last Gopher win in the series came in 2003. They’ve only won twice since 1995. Though despite getting absolutely silenced by the Wisconsin defense in each of the last two meetings, gaining a combined 457 yards of offense, Minnesota has only lost those games by a combined 23 points.
So it’s possible, all right, to take down the defending Big Ten West champion Badgers. The Gophers just have to do it.
“We've gotten better every year and everybody goes, ‘What do you want to do this year?’ And I want to be better. You don't think about it, but I believe, unless I've been corrected (as) wrong, is that two years in a row we've been one game away from being in the Big Ten Championship game.
“Nobody really talks about that one game. And it's Wisconsin. They've been a pain in our butt. We had our opportunities last year. Got to win the border games if you're going to be a Big Ten champion and you want to play in that game. You've got to win the border games. Our expectations (for the season are that) we’ve got to get another brick, and that's the brick.”
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Defeating Wisconsin is easier said than done, of course, and there’s a reason that doing that is a requirement for reaching the Big Ten title game. The Badgers have established themselves as the dominant force in the West Division, and even after losing Melvin Gordon this offseason, many see them as strong enough to still be the favorite for a repeat appearance in the conference title bout.
But the Gophers are looking to change the script. Last season, Wisconsin and Illinois were the only West teams to defeat Minnesota. The Gophers have proven themselves against Nebraska, against Iowa, against Northwestern. The loss to Illinois is seen by many as a fluke. Wisconsin remains the only hurdle Minnesota has yet to clear in the division.
If the Gophers are going to continue their upward trajectory under Kill, it will be necessary to clear that hurdle. The jump comes Nov. 28 in the Twin Cities.