Following are opinions from Mille Lacs County Times editor-sports editor Gary Larson, reporter Luther Dorr, former Times intern Logan Marxhausen and sports fan Ben Johnson. Note: This feature is written on Monday each week.
•Question: San Francisco drilled the Minnesota Vikings 34-14 Sunday night in San Francisco, dropping the Vikings to a 0-3 pre-season record. Teams usually play their starters in the third game of the exhibition season. Running back Adrian Peterson did not have a carry, so the Vikings were without their top offensive weapon. The team managed just 14 points while allowing 34. What’s your take on the team so far as it heads into its final exhibition game tonight (Thursday) at home against Tennessee?
-Dorr: I picked Viking offensive tackle Matt Kalil as the San Francisco MVP for his two penalties during a Minnesota drive that kept the Vikings from scoring at least a field goal, and possibly a touchdown, in the first half. Peterson didn’t carry the ball so it’s hard to tell where the team is right now. I wonder if the TD catch by Joe Webb will help him get a spot on the roster, a spot he didn’t seem likely to get. I haven’t got a handle on how the team will do at this point. I guess we’ll find out in the road games at Detroit and Chicago to open the season.
-Marxhausen: Right now the Vikings are doing a good job at keeping expectations low. Sure, they don’t have to take the preseason completely seriously, but their play needs to improve and they are looking sloppy. More than once they allowed San Francisco’s running backs to run for double-digit gains. On the second series for the 49ers, quarterback Colin Kaepernick went 6-for-6 with the end result a touchdown. The defense needs tightening up in the last game of the pre-season to show it’s ready for the upcoming season. Starting fullback Jerome Felton will be suspended for three games for violating the substance abuse policy. Running back Adrian Peterson will have a tough time getting that extra yard with his Pro Bowl fullback sidelined. The team is going to have to find a suitable fullback in the meantime. The Vikings lack explosiveness. They need a big playmaker to provide a spark and show they are a good team even without Peterson.
-Larson: Another ragged pre-season loss. A starting fullback suspended for substance abuse. The Wilfs’ legal problems back East and their ability to pay their share for a new stadium being questioned in Minnesota. It’s been a rough week for the Vikings. The success of a team’s offense begins with the offensive line, and the Vikings’ line, thought to be a strength this season, looked terrible against the 49ers. That issue needs to correct itself before the regular-season opener.
-Johnson: My biggest concern for the Vikings after three pre-season games is still quarterback Christian Ponder. You may look at his stats from Sunday’s game and argue that he did ‘OK’ but if you watched the game, you would know why there is a concern. One of his touchdowns came on a one-yard pass after a defensive pass interference call on a terrible throw in the end zone on third and long. The other touchdown was a three-yard completion to former quarterback Joe Webb. All of his completions were his first-read options that were completed on five-step drop backs. These are the kind of passes the Vikings will have to pursue all season. Colin Kaepernick, on the other hand, scrambled numerous times, looking down field to his third and fourth options, then picking up completions and first downs. I sure hope Adrian Peterson has been exercising his back this offseason because he will have to carry this Vikings offense.
•Question: The University of Minnesota football team hosts Nevada-Las Vegas tonight (Thursday) in its season opener. What will be the keys for Minnesota and how do you think it will do in its third season under coach Jerry Kill? Take a guess at what the Gophers’ final overall and Big Ten records will be.
-Dorr: Impossible to pick without knowing how big a part injuries will play. Sid Hartman said on television Sunday night that the first five games are easy, backtracking a bit from earlier this summer when he said San Jose State, with a very good quarterback, would be a good test. You’d think Minnesota would win those first four nonconference games and then comes an early homecoming game with Iowa on Sept. 28. Could the Gophers be 5-0? They could be, but will they be? The next three opponents are Michigan, Northwestern and Nebraska and it’s hard to look for a win there. Gary pointed out to me that Minnesota has two bye weeks, both coming at a good time, and maybe that will help. With no good reason to do so, I’ll say 7-5 for the season and 3-5 in the Big Ten. Don’t ask me which games they will win. I’ll be there for the UNLV game so I’ll have the scoop for next week.
-Marxhausen: First the Gopher offense needs to be more productive. They are bringing back a lot of players on offense and will rely on the running game to control the tempo. Quarterback Philip Nelson is feeling the heat from red-shirt freshman Mitch Leidner. The defense improved last season, especially against the pass, but the Gophers haven’t cleared that hurdle against the rush. Defending the run will be important. The last and most obvious key in any situation is injuries. The Gophers need to keep their injuries to a minimum so the same players can be on the field and improve their consistency. The Gophers will finish the season 6-6. Their nonconference games fare against teams that the Gophers should handle pretty easily. Then I see them finishing the Big Ten season 2-6, with their only wins coming against Iowa and Indiana.
-Larson: After starting the season with three non-conference cream puffs (Nevada-Las Vegas, New Mexico State, Western Illinois) the Gophers should be halfway to a bowl invite with nine games remaining. They should be able to scratch out three victories in their final nine games. Coach Jerry Kill says his team is improved from a year ago and we’ll take him at his word. A 7-5 record would show the program is makes strides, A 6-6 or worse mark would indicate it isn’t. Many are looking at the Big Ten opener against Iowa at TCF Bank Stadium as a victory. I’m not.
-Johnson: With quarterback Philip Nelson and their entire offensive line coming back, the Gopher offense should be better than last year. From what I hear, their defensive secondary is supposed to be a big improvement from recent years. It appears to be another tough division for 2013. I will root that the Gophers can go 3-5 in the conference which is an improvement upon last year’s 2-6 record, with an overall record of 6-6.
•Question: The college football season gets underway this week. Take a guess at who, in order from 1-4, the top four teams will be in the final regular-season poll?
-Dorr: Everyone seems to be picking Alabama so I’ll go along with the experts. There’s a lot of conjecture about the next six or seven spots and I have no idea about any of those teams – it’s too early in the process. Put down Texas A & M (if the quarterback is available), Ohio State and Notre Dame. If the Texas A&M bad-boy quarterback isn’t available, slide Oregon in there.
-Marxhausen: At the No. 4 spot will be Texas A&M. Although Johnny Manziel was on the negative side of the news this past summer, he still has the ability to make plays and lead a strong offense down the field. At the No. 3 spot will be Georgia. It had an incredible finish last season and the Bulldogs are poised to be that same team this season. At the No. 2 spot will be Ohio State. Although the Buckeyes were ineligible for any postseason bowl games, they still lit up the Big Ten and showed they are right on top of everyone coming into the new season. At the No. 1 spot is Alabama. Coach Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide team has been unbeatable since his first year as head coach and is the automatic favorite coming into the season.
-Larson: Ohio State, 12-0 last year, should again go unbeaten in the regular season. Like Minnesota, the Buckeyes play teams they should roll over (Buffalo, San Diego State, Florida A&M) in three of their first four games. A Sept. 14 game at California could be a test. Ohio State’s Big Ten schedule does not include Nebraska or Michigan State, leaving a home game against Wisconsin in its conference opener and the regular-season finale at rival Michigan as its biggest challenges. Finishing undefeated with that schedule doesn’t merit a No. 1 ranking but that’s what the Buckeyes will get as they finish 12-0. Alabama, with one loss, will finish at No. 2 and Oregon’s date with Stanford Nov. 7 at Stanford will determine No. 3. Give the edge and the No. 3 ranking to Stanford. If Georgia can survive early games at Clemson (Sunday on ABC TV), at home Sept. 7 against coach Steve Spurrier’s South Carolina Gamecocks and at home against dangerous LSU Sept. 28, the Bulldogs have a shot at No. 1. But, Georgia will falter in one of those games and finish No. 4.
The college football season is the most exciting and most interesting of all the sports seasons. There are great match-ups week after week and so many great rivalries. And, with a dozen or so games on TV every week, sit back and enjoy.
-Johnson: I’ll take Ohio State at 1, Oklahoma State 2, Alabama 3, and Louisville at 4.
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