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Bowl game or bust? Gophs believe they'll get there

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP)

Maybe this is the year. For historically struggling teams like Minnesota, the start of the season always brings the confidence that comes with a spotless record, strong chemistry and perceived improvement.

After finally surrounding themselves with some calm and continuity, the sounds of optimism from the Gophers are louder than usual.

''Minnesota is different this year. It's a new mindset. Different players. New jerseys. Everything about Minnesota is getting better and evolving,'' sophomore 0wide receiver Marcus Jones said. ''It's just time for the program and the team to start winning games. That's what I believe is going to happen. That's what we believe as a team is going to happen.''

After consecutive 3-9 seasons, the first marked by the firing of Tim Brewster and the second by Jerry Kill's seizures, the Gophers have their sights set on a bowl game. Any bowl game. Because that would be a lot better than what they've been the last two years.

''It's not, `Can we do it?' anymore. It's, `We will do it,''' Jones said. ''So we feel if we don't get to it, we let ourselves down. We let Minnesota down.''

Stiffer competition for starting spots is usually a sign that a team is getting better. The entire roster was divided into different mini-teams during the winter strength and conditioning session, and points were awarded for accomplishments in the weight room and subtracted for no-nos like missing a class or arriving late to a meeting.

''Guys couldn't wait to get to practice,'' junior free safety Brock Vereen said. ''When you're excited to get to practice, you're doing something right.''

The program was so popular the Gophers started another version this summer.

''It wasn't just something that we shrugged off. Everybody really wanted to win it,'' senior middle linebacker Mike Rallis said, adding: ''The team is as close as we've had since I've been here.''

Beating Illinois to close 2011 gave the Gophers some much-needed self-assurance to take into the offseason. They rallied around the sudden death of former middle linebacker Gary Tinsley. They gained a better grasp of the schemes brought by Kill's staff after playing for so many coordinators during Brewster's time.

At each of Kill's previous stops, Saginaw Valley State, Emporia State, Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois, his teams had a better record in his second year. Now the Gophers have their chance to prove they're not the easy win they've been for so many the Big Ten opponents the last few years, and it starts with senior quarterback MarQueis Gray.

''For me to have a big year is going to determine how this program goes,'' Gray said. ''I'm going to accept that role and work as hard as I can to make sure we go to a bowl game and come back with that bowl win.''

Kill has raved about Gray's strides in leadership and poise. As elusive as he is -- he rushed for 966 yards and six touchdowns last season -- if Gray doesn't scramble as much this year that'll be one sign the offense is in better shape. Replacing Duane Bennett at running back and Da'Jon McKnight at wide receiver are the two most important issues of training camp on that side of the ball.

The defense is likely where Minnesota's bowl goal will be made or broken.

The Gophers forced only nine turnovers last year, the fewest of all 120 teams at the FBS level. Vereen moved from cornerback to help stabilize a secondary that lost three starters, and Rallis moved to the middle to replace Tinsley. They'll need more consistent production from linebacker Keanon Cooper, defensive end D.L. Wilhite and cornerback Troy Stoudermire.

The schedule could help the bowl goal, too.

The season opener is Aug. 30 at UNLV, which went 1-6 in the Mountain West Conference and 2-10 overall last year. An FCS team is next, with New Hampshire visiting TCF Bank Stadium on Sept. 8. The Wildcats went 8-4 last season and lost their first playoff game. Then comes home games against Western Michigan (7-6, 5-3 Mid-American Conference) and Syracuse (5-7, 1-6 Big East Conference).

Iowa will be stinging about two consecutive losses to Minnesota when the Gophers start Big Ten play there on Sept. 29. Road trips to Wisconsin on Oct. 20 and Nebraska on Nov. 17 will likely make them heavy underdogs. The same goes for hosting Legends Division heavyweights Michigan on Nov. 3 and Michigan State on Nov. 24.

But home games against Northwestern (6-7, 3-5) on Oct. 13 and Purdue (7-6, 4-4) on Oct. 27 and a trip to Illinois (7-6, 2-6) on Nov. 10 don't look all that daunting.

''Our expectations are a bowl game,'' Jones said. ''We've been working since last year to get to a bowl game. We have what it takes. It's just a matter of going out there and doing it.''

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Follow Dave Campbell on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/DaveCampbellAP

Tagged: Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, MarQueis Gray, Marcus Jones

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