MINNEAPOLIS — If any member of the University of Minnesota football team would have predicted a 12-0 season a few years ago, they would have been laughed at.
Now? It still may be a farfetched goal, but it’s not as unreasonable as it was when fourth-year head coach Jerry Kill first came to campus in 2011. While senior running back David Cobb didn’t exactly predict Minnesota would go undefeated this year, he did say at Big Ten media day that going 12-0 is the team’s goal — and it should be. Every team should aim to win all of their games.
Yet while a perfect season is unlikely and something achieved by only a select few schools each year in college football, the Gophers are expected to take another step forward in 2014. Just how much better this Minnesota squad can become remains to be seen, but the confidence is soaring in Dinkytown as the Gophers prepare for Thursday’s season opener against Eastern Illinois.
"We have the highest goals possible," said redshirt sophomore quarterback Mitch Leidner. "We want to win the Big Ten, win a Rose Bowl. We’ve just got to take it a step at a time. We’ve got game one first and then keep going on from there."
An improvement from last year’s eight-win season could hinge primarily on the offense and what kind of progress has been made to revitalize a passing attack that ranked dead last in the Big Ten. Leidner has been given the keys to the offense as the No. 1 quarterback following the transfer of Philip Nelson. Leidner’s teammates have complete confidence in his leadership ability. But does he have the tools around him to elevate the passing game?
In order for Minnesota to climb the ranks of the Big Ten, its offense has to be more dynamic. The Gophers believe it is.
"I definitely think our offense is 10 times better," Cobb said. "Going against our defense every day, those guys are great. I think they’ve got us prepared to play. We run the ball a lot better and we definitely pass the ball a lot better."
While the Gophers continue to search for playmakers on offense — particularly at wide receiver — their defense hopes to pick up right where it left off last season. Minnesota allowed the fourth-fewest points per game among Big Ten teams last year (22.2), and ranked in the top half in both pass defense and rushing defense.
The Gophers secondary should be the team’s calling card on the defensive side of the ball, while Minnesota also returns plenty of experience along the defensive line. Minnesota lost a pair of NFL-caliber talents in defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman and safety Brock Vereen, but this defense has a chance to be even better than it was a year ago.
"I think we’re really good at stopping the run and stopping the pass," said senior safety Cedric Thompson. "I think we have to get better every week at doing both."
In order to start off on the right foot toward their goal of 12-0, the Gophers will have to get past Eastern Illinois, a Football Championship Subdivision school that went 12-2 last year to win the Ohio Valley Conference. The Panthers were one of the top passing offenses in the FCS last year, thanks to quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.
While Garoppolo is gone — the New England Patriots made him a second-round pick in this year’s draft — Eastern Illinois should bring a high-powered offense to TCF Bank Stadium on Thursday for the season opener. That includes running back Shepard Little, whom Kill spoke very highly of at his preseason press conference Saturday.
"From an offensive standpoint, Little is going to play at the next level, without a doubt. Tremendous running back," Kill said. "We lined up here I think in my first or second year, played North Dakota State. It’s a different style of team, but that’s the kind of athletes we’re going to get. We certainly need to focus on Eastern Illinois, and more importantly we need to focus on what we can control and that’s us. We need to make sure our kids are ready to play and ready to play each down, every snap, every play."
After losing to Syracuse by four points in the Texas Bowl in late December, the Gophers have been eager to turn the page on the 2013 season and start fresh. Now that spring ball and fall camp are over with, the regular season is finally here.
"Coming off the loss in the bowl game, a disappointing loss, there’s kind of been a bad taste in our mouth," Cobb said. "That taught us a lesson to respect every opponent. We’ve all been hungry."
FOX Sports North’s Brian Hall contributed to this report.