Following are opinions from Mille Lacs County Times editor-sports editor Gary Larson, reporter Luther Dorr and former Times intern Logan Marxhausen. Note: This feature is written on Monday each week.
•Question: The University of Minnesota football team begins its season tonight (Thursday) with a non-conference game at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. It’s the first of what some experts are calling a “cupcake” non-conference schedule. In coach Jerry Kill’s second season, the Gophers will continue non-conference play by hosting New Hampshire, which is not a Division I school, Western Michigan and Syracuse. Minnesota begins Big Ten play at Iowa, then faces, in order, Northwestern (H), Wisconsin (A), Purdue (H), Michigan (H), Illinois (A), Nebraska (A) and Michigan State (H). The Gophers were 3-9 in Kill’s first. What does the team have to do to show the program is moving forward this season?
-Dorr: A 5-7 or 6-6 record might do that, as well as being more competitive in Big Ten games. The team can’t afford many injuries.
-Marxhausen: Some may call those non-conference foes “cupcakes” but the Gophers need to show that they can win those games and win them handily To show that the Gopher program is moving forward, they need to control those non-conference games and be able to compete with the Big Ten teams. Nobody is expecting the Gophers to do much better than last season. Progression for the Gopher football team also needs to start with winning Big Ten games. Big Ten play is extremely competitive and the Gophers showed last season that even if the odds are against them, they still can win against Big Ten teams. Beating Iowa in a very close game at the end of October and then dominating Illinois at the end of the season left some hope for a turnaround performance this season. Non-conference wins plus a few Big Ten wins would show the program is moving forward. A better record than 3-9 would show progression, but they need to be able to compete every weekend to show true progress.
-Larson: Minnesota needs to win at least three of its four non-conference games, and be competitive, with a victory or two, in the Big Ten to show the program is moving ahead. Pre-season rankings put the Gophers last, or next to last in the Big Ten’s Legends Division standings as well as in recruiting. Minnesota’s roster appears to be improved but inexperience will be a major problem. Coach Kill has been active promoting Gopher football since the end of last season and remains upbeat and enthused.
•Question: What’s your prediction for Minnesota’s final 2012 record?
-Dorr: Assuming they win the first four, 6-6.
-Marxhausen: The Gophers will do better than last season, but not enough to get excited about. They need to start off winning at least three of four of their non-conference games to start on the right page. The Gophers won’t win against the massive football programs in the Big Ten like Michigan, Nebraska, Wisconsin or Michigan State, but they can overcome Northwestern, Purdue and Illinois if they have consistent play and don’t let any losses become demoralizing enough to kick them to the curb. I see the Gophers finishing with either a 4-8 or 5-7 record. Either way I think they will look and play better than last season.
-Larson: A loss at Nevada-Las Vegas would be a huge setback. I don’t think that will happen. Let’s give the Gophers an opening victory and a final record of 5-7. Not great, but not too bad, either.
•Question: The college football season begins this weekend. The new four-team postseason playoff system doesn’t begin until next season. Give us four teams most likely to be candidates for this season’s BCS title game.
-Dorr: USC, LSU, Alabama and Oklahoma. Why? Because those four teams are listed as the top four teams in both the AP and USA Today polls. I know very little about any college teams outside the Big Ten and it appears those teams are everyone’s favorites. I hope they trash that playoff system before it begins after the 2013 regular season.
-Marxhausen: To start off the season with big clash between Michigan and Alabama on Saturday will be a huge deciding factor in my book. I think the Wolverines have what it takes to top the Crimson Tide, pushing Michigan to the front of the pack with a high-profile victory. Depending on if Michigan can hold its composure all season, it will finish in the top four. LSU will beat Alabama later in the season, clinching its spot at the top of the Southeast Conference. Oklahoma has a very tough schedule, but if it prevails, it has the best argument for being the true No. 1. The final spot is going to be chosen from the winner of the USC-Oregon match-up on Nov. 3. USC will be the victor here, overcoming Oregon’s high-powered offense.
-Larson: I know Michigan is Logan’s favorite college team. Our Golden Gophers are Luther’s favorite. I have several favorites every season and this season they are Southern Cal, LSU, Oklahoma and Florida State, two of which will be in the BCS title game.
•Question: The Minnesota Vikings lost to San Diego Friday 12-10 on a last-second field goal. Many in the Twin Cities media felt the team took a step backward after showing promise in a win over Buffalo a week earlier. What are your thoughts?
.-Dorr: I watched more of that game than I have of any Viking exhibition game in recent years and it was a disaster. I have said from the time that Leslie Frazier was hired that I was unsure about his qualifications to be a head coach, simply because he was supposed to be a defensive guru and the Vikings defenses under him were undisciplined and not very good. And you saw some more of that Friday, especially late in the game. Christian Ponder didn’t have much of a night, considering he was going against San Diego reserves. You don’t want to read too much into an exhibition game but it wasn’t much of a performance by the Vikings.
-Marxhausen: The win against Buffalo was a step in the right direction for the Vikings, but the asterisk should be placed next to that performance because it is still preseason. Preseason always needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Coaches are not highly concerned about winning, but rather seeing certain players in action. Watching this game, the Vikings were able to conclude once again that they still have issues holding on to the ball (four turnovers) and a difficult time reaching the end zone. The Chargers and Vikings were trying to give the opposing team as many second-chance opportunities with poor decisions on the field. Although the Vikings chalked up four turnovers, the Chargers racked up 14 penalties and were 3-16 on third down. The Vikings have many issues to address before the start of the season. If they are not prepared, then expect the same results as last season.
-Larson: Big concerns for the Vikings heading into training camp were the offensive line, the receivers and the defensive secondary. Through three games, not much has changed. Did you get the feeling that after Sage Rosenfels led Minnesota to its lone touchdown to put the Vikings ahead that San Diego would move quickly down field to score the winning points in the closing seconds? Me, too,
•Question: The Minnesota Twins limped home from a 2-8 road trip, which saw their record drop to 52-75. The struggling Boston Red Sox decided over the weekend to send some of their high-priced stars to the Los Angeles Dodgers. The move opened up salary space and the team said it’s now in a “rebuilding” phase. Should the Twins, and could the Twins, move into that same direction?
-Dorr: I don’t think the Twins should do anything like that, nor do I think it would be possible. The Red Sox have a lot more money to spend than the Twins. And the Red Sox did keep some of their key players. The Twins don’t have as many key players as Boston and they shouldn’t, as some KSTP Radio people keep insisting, trade Justin Morneau. True, Morneau is not what he once was. But they can’t get enough for him to make a trade worthwhile. And while we all agree that the Twins badly need starting pitching, the second-biggest problem on that horrible road trip was the failure to hit with runners in scoring position. Even in Sunday’s game that the Twins won, their performance in that area was terrible. And it was especially true on that road trip of the guys in the middle of the order, the ones who are supposed to drive in runs. A few weeks ago they were doing it and now they’re not. Want another example? Monday night, against a great pitcher, Morneau hit a leadoff triple and three groundouts – on only four pitches – followed.
-Marxhausen: If the Twins were capable of getting some prospects as well as rid the team of some unwanted salaries, then the move might be seen with some excitement. Should the Twins move into the same direction as Boston? No. The Twins would have to trade Joe Mauer to a team that would be able to pick up his contract and there are very few teams that could do that. And, some teams wouldn’t be interested because of the question marks that surround him.
-Larson: How bad are things going for the Twins? During the rain delay in Texas Sunday Fox North showed VIKING-related programing rather than Twins programing. How’s that for a kick in the behind?
Ask yourself, who, besides outfielder Josh Willingham and rookie pitcher Scott Diamond, has actually been somewhat of a consistent difference-maker this season? Would the Twins’ record this season be much worse without Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and other so-called regulars? Probably not. The Twins won’t be able to rebuild via trades because they have little to offer any team interested.
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