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College football: Gophers open season tonight

USA TODAY Sports Minnesota tight end Maxx Williams catches a touchdown pass against Syracuse on Dec. 27, 2013, at the Texas Bowl in Houston.

By Marcus R. Fuller

St. Paul Pioneer Press

MINNEAPOLIS — The temperatures were freezing, but Mitch Leidner was boiling.

Watching helplessly from the sideline as Minnesota lost a tight game against archrival Wisconsin, the Gophers’ backup quarterback was beside himself.

“I wanted to be out there,” said Leidner, who didn’t play a snap in a 20-7 loss last November at TCF Bank Stadium. “I wanted to leave my mark on that field, especially against that team. We were so close. But this year, we’re going to be able to close the deal.”

That would be a huge step for Minnesota’s football program, which hasn’t beaten its border rival since 2003, but it won’t be the only indicator of where the Gophers are headed under fourth-year coach Jerry Kill.

Leidner will be under center when Minnesota opens its 2014 season today with a 6 p.m. kickoff against Eastern Illinois at TCF Bank Stadium.

Minnesota’s eight-win season in 2013 had the earmarks of a breakthrough, from the way the team rallied around Kill during his battles with epilepsy to the way the Gophers dispatched Nebraska and Penn State — and won four straight Big Ten Conference games for the first time in 40 years.

But it wasn’t perfect. Minnesota failed to beat border rivals Iowa and Wisconsin, programs that have managed to rise in the Big Ten while Minnesota has struggled, and lost its sixth straight bowl game.

Off the field, the Gophers still rank near the bottom of the conference in facilities, one reason Kill has been so vocal about a new practice facility, almost as if he’s trying to will his administration to build it.

For players on this team success means beating the program’s biggest rivals and winning a bowl game for the first time since 2004.

“We want to win for the state of Minnesota,” Leidner said. “We want to change the program around, and coach Kill is the guy to do it.”

Kill and Gophers athletics director Norwood Teague say this year could be another “special” one, but they also understand that Minnesota could actually improve this season and not see the same results. And last year hasn’t convinced college football reporters and analysts, none of whom picked Minnesota to finish higher than fourth in the new Big Ten West Division.

With Ohio State back on the conference slate, and a nonconference game at Texas Christian, the schedule is tougher. The Gophers also must fill big losses on defense — NFL draft picks Ra’Shede Hageman and Brock Vereen — and return the Big Ten’s worst passing offense.

“Last year, there weren’t nobody in our conference, or anybody in the country, that figured we were going to win eight games,” Kill said. “I think you’ve gotta continue to earn respect. Same thing happened at Northern (Illinois), when we won, they say you lost those players, you’re not going to win. Do you have a chip on your shoulder? I think all our kids have a chip on their shoulder from the time they come in. I think that’s good. Maybe that’s why our kids work so hard in the offseason.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m not a predictor. But I will say this: we worked hard. If hard work has anything to do with it, we have a real good chance of doing some good things and special things.”

The Gophers’ passing attack needs to be better — their 148.1 yards a game were their worst since 1988 — but they had their best rushing offense (195.2) in nine years. The defense also was the program’s best in a decade, ranking fourth in the Big Ten in points allowed (22.2) and first in red zone defense (74 percent).

To get to a bowl game this year, the Gophers will likely have to win six of their first eight games because their November schedule is arguably the toughest four-game stretch for any Big Ten team, with games against Iowa and Ohio State at home before finishing with Nebraska and Wisconsin on the road.

ESPN college football analyst Jason Sehorn said there was “no way” Minnesota starts the season 6-2, mainly because of road games against Texas Christian and Michigan during that stretch.

“They’re not going to be favored,” Sehorn said on the ESPNU Big Ten preview. “They’ll have a difficult time getting through those, let alone six wins in their first eight games. I don’t think they get to bowl-eligible before November.”

The two favorable conference matchups appear to be Northwestern and Purdue at home. Taking care of Eastern Illinois, Middle Tennessee and San Jose State at home makes for five wins, but to become bowl-eligible they’re going to have to upset someone.

TCU is predicted to finish seventh in the Big 12 and lost their top defensive player, Devonte Fields, who was kicked off the team after an assault charge. Michigan and Illinois have the advantage of playing Minnesota at home, as well, but aren’t considered Big Ten contenders.

Minnesota probably has to win at least one of those games for another bowl trip; otherwise, they’ll have to take out Iowa, Wisconsin or Ohio State.

“I could easily see them finishing ahead of Northwestern, Illinois and Purdue,” FOX College Football analyst Charles Davis said. “That would not surprise me if they were to finish fourth in that (Big Ten West) division. And if they play with the same spirit we saw throughout the season last year, third is not out of line.

“Those big three (Wisconsin, Nebraska and Iowa) could end up bumping each other around pretty well, too.”