NCF Nation: Minnesota Golden Gophers

This week, we're examining a potential problem position for each Big Ten team, and what needs to get fixed in the coming months. These positions could be going through major personnel changes or simply in need of a performance upgrade from the existing players or the incoming recruits/transfers.

Up next, Minnesota.

Problem position: Wide receivers

Why wide receiver was a problem in 2014: The Gophers rarely passed the football -- remember the seven attempts against San Jose State in Week 4? -- and when they did, quarterback Mitch Leidner looked for tight end Maxx Williams. Mad Maxx had twice as many receptions (36) as any wide receiver. Minnesota had high hopes for young wideouts Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones entering the season, but injury and other factors limited them to a combined 19 catches for 359 yards.

How it can be fixed (solutions on the roster): Wolitarsky showed promise as a freshman in 2013 and, if healthy, should take on a much bigger role in 2015. He missed the stretch run with a high ankle sprain. KJ Maye brings speed and experience to the field. Beyond those two, things are slim as Jones was dismissed from the team in December and Isaac Fruechte completed his eligibility. The coaches like Isaiah Gentry, whose 6-foot-4 frame could help on the perimeter. Minnesota needs Gentry and other young wideouts -- Eric Carter, Desmond Gant, Melvin Holland Jr. -- to grow up fast.

How it can be fixed (potential help from 2015 recruiting class): The Gophers recently added two receivers from far-flung locations in Hunter Register (Louisiana) and Rashad Still (Texas). Minnesota went heavier on wide receivers in the 2014 class and will lean more on those recruits, especially after Jones' unexpected departure.

Early 2015 outlook: The good news: Minnesota doesn't use many wide receivers on offense. The bad news: finding more than two capable options could be a challenge. Minnesota simply lacks depth here, and with Williams leaving early for the NFL, the pass-catching void is even bigger. Wolitarsky must get healthy and emerge as a top option alongside Maye. But the development of other players will be critical to balance out a strong run game. This isn't a new problem for Minnesota, but it must be solved.
They didn't sneak up on us.

Anyone who tracked the Big Ten's summer buzz -- or reviewed the list of players attending preseason media days in Chicago -- noticed the league's surplus of standout running backs.

Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon had spurned the NFL, and a potential first-round draft selection, for a run at the Heisman Trophy and a national championship. Gordon's good friend Ameer Abdullah also was back for one final season at Nebraska, where he had been among the nation's most productive players. Indiana football might not have held your attention, but Tevin Coleman's 7.3 yards-per-carry average certainly did.

[+] EnlargeMelvin Gordon
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsIn many years, Doak Walker Award winner Melvin Gordon would have taken home the Heisman Trophy.
Michigan State's Jeremy Langford and Minnesota's David Cobb had been workhorses in 2013 -- combining for 529 carries -- and were back for more. Almost every team had a player capable of logging 1,000 rush yards.

"In this league," Cobb told ESPN.com's Austin Ward in August, "there's a good running back on every team."

Turned out, Cobb was underselling himself and his fellow backs. Most Big Ten teams had great, if not elite, running backs.

The numbers back it up: 2014 was easily the best season for running backs in Big Ten history.

The league produced six 1,500-yard rushers -- no other conference had more than three (no other Power 5 league had more than two). According to research from the Big Ten office, until 2014 the league never had more than three 1,500-yard rushers in the same season. Although a 12-game regular season, a championship game and the College Football Playoff provide more opportunities, Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott was the only back who needed the extra contests to reach -- and ultimately far eclipse -- 1,500 yards.

According to ESPN Stats and Info, no FBS conference has had even five 1,500-yard rushers since at least 1996.

The Big Ten produced the nation's top three rushers in Gordon, Coleman and Elliott. It had all three finalists for the Doak Walker Award in Gordon (who won), Coleman and Abdullah. Gordon was a Heisman finalist and likely would have won the award in any other year, as Marcus Mariota's numbers were overwhelming. Coleman and Gordon were consensus All-Americans, and Elliott earned offensive MVP honors in both the Playoff semifinal at the Sugar Bowl, and in the national championship game.

So much star power eclipsed the consistency of players such as Cobb and Langford, the emergence of Northwestern freshman Justin Jackson, the speed threat of Purdue's Akeem Hunt, or the versatility of Illinois' Josh Ferguson.

Go ahead. Try to find a more productive season at running back -- for any league -- in college football history.

But what stands out about the Year of the Big Ten Running Back was that it occurred in stanzas. Just when one star back broke from the pack, another would seize the spotlight.

Let's take a quick look back:

Act 1: Fear Ameer

Abdullah and Georgia's Todd Gurley were the nation's best backs in the first month of the season. The Nebraska senior opened with a 232-yard performance against Florida Atlantic, and finished September with consecutive 200-yard efforts against Miami and Illinois. Abdullah finished with just 54 rush yards against FCS McNeese State but delivered one of the season's most memorable plays -- a 58-yard run after catch through McNeese State defenders with 20 seconds left that secured a Cornhuskers win.

Although Coleman also had a strong start and other Big Ten backs had their moments, Abdullah put himself in the Heisman talk with 833 rush yards and eight touchdowns by the end of September.

Act 2: Melvin makes his move

It was a bizarre start for Gordon: a huge first half (plus one play) against LSU, followed by a mysterious absence, followed by a 17-carry, 38-yard clunker against Western Illinois. Goodbye, Heisman? Hardly.

Beginning with a 253-yard performance against Bowling Green, Gordon posted 10 consecutive games of 100 or more rush yards, five 200-yard performances and seven games with multiple rushing touchdowns. By the end of October, he had returned to the national awards races.

[+] EnlargeTevin Coleman
AP Photo/Darron CummingsTevin Coleman's monster performances were hard to miss, even if Indiana was otherwise struggling.
Act 3: Coleman gets his due

It's always hard to get noticed on a struggling team, but when a player consistently puts up numbers like Coleman, he commands attention. Coleman averaged at least 6.9 yards per carry in six of his first seven games, including 14.5 yards per rush in a 219-yard effort at Iowa. Although his 307-yard explosion at Rutgers was overshadowed by Gordon's record-setting day against Nebraska, he earned national respect by running for 228 yards and three touchdowns at Ohio State in a game that Indiana led in the third quarter.

Coleman averaged 197.3 rush yards in road games, barely trailing Gordon (198 ypg) for the national lead.

Act 4: What about the other guys?

Cobb and Langford lacked the flash of Gordon, Coleman or Abdullah, but their consistency, durability and production eventually became impossible to ignore. Cobb logged five performances of 145 rush yards or more and recorded 30 or more carries in four consecutive games. Langford started slowly but ended the season with 10 consecutive 100-yard rushing performances, a team record. He ended his career with 15 consecutive 100-yard performances in Big Ten games, the longest such streak for any FBS player in regular-season conference games since at least 1996.

Elliott also surfaced with 154 yards at Michigan State, the first of many big-stage performances he would deliver down the stretch.

Act 5: Gordon's Heisman move

Some felt Mariota had the Heisman locked up by early November. Gordon made them reconsider. After a ho-hum 205-yard effort at Purdue, Gordon gashed Nebraska for an NCAA-record 408 rush yards as snow fell at Camp Randall Stadium. His milestone, compiled in just three quarters, lasted just one week as Oklahoma's Samaje Perine broke the record, but Gordon made the Heisman a two-man race again. He followed up with 200 yards at Iowa and a workmanlike 151 against Minnesota as Wisconsin won the Big Ten West Division.

Gordon fell shy of the Heisman but won the Doak Walker Award and secured a place as one of the great -- and perhaps the greatest -- Wisconsin back.

Act 6: Riding the E Train to a championship

The Year of the Big Ten Back was supposed to end with Gordon, but Elliott provided a surprise addendum. It started with 220 rush yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries in Ohio State's 59-0 stomping of Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game. Elliott then followed with 230 yards and two scores on 20 carries in the Playoff semifinal against Alabama at the Sugar Bowl, including a Crimson Tide-taming 85-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter.

He ended with an even better performance -- 246 rush yards and four touchdowns -- as "ZEEEEEKE!" cheers reverberated throughout AT&T Stadium in Ohio State's national title win against Oregon.

The final carry for a Big Ten back this season: Elliott's 1-yard touchdown run with 28 seconds to play, providing a fitting exclamation point.
To quote the band Europe, we're in the final countdown. Our list of the best Big Ten players from the 2014 season has reached the top 10. This next group reflects the league's strongest position (by far): running back.

Let's get to it.

No. 6: Ameer Abdullah, RB Nebraska

Abdullah won't soon be forgotten by Nebraska fans who have seen plenty of elite running backs over the decades. The heart and soul of Huskers football the past few years eclipsed 1,600 rushing yards for the second consecutive season, ranked fourth nationally in all-purpose yards (174.8 ypg) and had 22 total touchdowns, numbers that would have been even greater if not for a late-season knee sprain. Abdullah earned second-team AP All-America honors and was a finalist for the Doak Walker Award and a semifinalist for the Maxwell Award.

No. 7: Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Ohio State

For most of the season, it was the Melvin Gordon, Tevin Coleman and Ameer Abdullah show, with some cameos from David Cobb. No one mentioned Elliott, mostly because Buckeyes freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett kept stealing the show with his performances. But Elliott took center stage in Ohio State's championship run, earning offensive MVP honors in both the College Football Playoff semifinal and championship game. Cheers of "Zeeke!" echoed in Indianapolis, New Orleans and Arlington, Texas, as Elliott racked up 696 rush yards and eight touchdowns in the Big Ten championship and playoff games. He finished third nationally in rushing yards with 1,878.

No. 8: Anthony Zettel, DT, Penn State

The only non-running back in this portion of the player rankings earned his spot largely by making life miserable for opposing running backs. Zettel moved from end to tackle in the spring and emerged as an interior force, finishing second in the Big Ten in tackles for loss (17) and tied for fourth in sacks (8). He also tied for the team lead in interceptions (3). An exceptional athlete who supplements his football work with mixed martial arts training, Zettel is continuing Penn State's tradition of elite defensive tackles.

No. 9: David Cobb, RB, Minnesota

The 220-pound Texan put Minnesota's offense on his back for much of the season. Cobb set single-season team records for both carries (314) and rush yards (1,626), and logged seven 100-yard rushing performances. The second-team All-Big Ten selection had big performances against both Ohio State (145 yards) and Michigan (183 yards) and reached the end zone in each of his final six Big Ten games. Minnesota's offense lacked balance at times, but Cobb kept the chains moving.

No. 10: Jeremy Langford, RB, Michigan State

Langford might be the nation's most under-appreciated running back in the past two seasons. Constantly overshadowed by flashier players in the Big Ten and elsewhere, he has been remarkably consistent and productive, recording 10 100-yard rushing performances to give him a team-record 18 for his career. He also tied Michigan State's single-season rushing touchdowns record with 22. Like in 2013, Langford did much of his damage in Big Ten play, averaging 127.5 rush yards per game. In almost any other league, he's a first-team all-conference selection.

Big Ten all-bowl team

January, 16, 2015
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The Big Ten played in 10 bowl games -- 11 if you count the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T. We've come up with our list of the league's best postseason performers. The strategy here was as follows: When in doubt, choose a Buckeye. There is lots of scarlet and gray on our Big Ten all-bowl team, as you'd expect. Here it is:

Offense

QB: Christian Hackenberg, Penn State: Bouncing back from an at times rough sophomore season, Hackenberg reminded everyone of his talent in his team's 31-30 New Era Pinstripe Bowl win over Boston College. He threw for 371 yards and a season-high four touchdowns with no interceptions.

[+] EnlargeEzekiel Elliott
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesOhio State running back Ezekiel Elliott left defenders grasping at air this postseason.
RB: Ezekiel Elliott, Ohio State: The offensive MVP of both the Allstate Sugar Bowl and the national championship game, Elliott blossomed into a superstar this postseason. He ran for 476 yards and six touchdowns in the two playoff wins, including a four-touchdown night against Oregon.

RB: Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin: The Badgers star capped his career in style, by running for 251 yards and three touchdowns in Wisconsin's Outback Bowl win over Auburn. Gordon finished the season with 2,587 rushing yards, the second most in FBS history.

WR: Devin Smith, Ohio State: The Buckeyes' big-play threat became even more dangerous with Cardale Jones slinging it to him in the postseason. He had two catches for 87 yards and a score against Alabama and one for 45 yards against Oregon, but defenses always had to account for Smith.

WR: Chris Godwin, Penn State: The Nittany Lions freshman had 198 total receiving yards on the season before he caught seven balls for 140 yards and a touchdown in the win over Boston College.

TE: Maxx Williams, Minnesota: Williams had seven receptions for 98 yards and a score in his team's Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl loss to Missouri. His hurdle over a Tigers defensive back en route to a 54-yard score was one of the best plays of bowl season.

OL: Taylor Decker, Ohio State: The Buckeyes dominated the line of scrimmage against Alabama and Oregon, and their junior left tackle was a huge reason for that.

OL: Pat Elflein, Ohio State: Elflein was terrific from his guard position, as the Buckeyes were able to run the ball extremely well in both playoff games.

OL: Kodi Kieler, Michigan State: Thrust into the starting lineup at right tackle due to an injury, Kieler graded out as the Spartans' top offensive linemen in their 42-41 Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic win over Baylor. His hustle on a Baylor interception drew a penalty that might have saved the game.

OL: Jack Allen, Michigan State: The center and leader of the Spartans' line helped pave room for 552 yards and 29 first downs against Baylor.

OL: Kyle Costigan, Wisconsin: The Badgers ran for 400 yards against Auburn, and Costigan helped lead the way.

Defense

DL: Joey Bosa, Ohio State
DL: Michael Bennett, Ohio State
DL: Adolphus Washington, Ohio State

Yep, we've got three Buckeyes here (and you could make a case for Steve Miller, who had a pick-six versus Alabama). The Ohio State defensive line was great in both playoff games at both holding up against the run and generating pressure on the quarterback, and the starters proved to be iron men in both games.

DL: Anthony Zettel, Penn State: Zettel had a pair of tackles for loss against Boston College to finish his spectacular season at defensive tackle for the Nittany Lions.

LB: Darron Lee, Ohio State: The defensive MVP of the Sugar Bowl became a household name this January. Only a redshirt freshman, Lee could terrorize Big Ten offenses for a long time.

LB: Curtis Grant, Ohio State: Yet another Buckeyes defender. Grant led the team in tackles in the Sugar Bowl and was strong from his middle linebacker position when it mattered most.

LB: Joe Schobert, Wisconsin: Schobert collected three tackles for loss in Wisconsin's win over Auburn.

CB: Doran Grant, Ohio State: He corralled Alabama stud receiver Amari Cooper in the Sugar Bowl and held Cooper to his second-lowest yardage total against an FBS team this season.

CB: Jordan Lucas, Penn State: Boston College passed for only 97 yards on 20 attempts versus the Nittany Lions. Lucas also added seven tackles and a sack in the victory.

S: Vonn Bell, Ohio State: Hey, look, another Buckeye. Bell added to Ohio State's outstanding defensive effort from his safety position by grabbing an interception against Alabama and collecting 14 tackles in the two playoff games.

S: Lorenzo Waters, Rutgers: He was a busy man in his team's 40-21 Quick Lane Bowl win over North Carolina, with 14 tackles, two fumble recoveries and a blocked field goal.

Specialists

K: Rafael Gaglianone, Wisconsin: The Brazilian freshman kicked a 29-yard field goal with seven seconds left to send the game against Auburn into overtime, and he won it with a 25-yarder in the first extra period.

P: Cameron Johnston, Ohio State: He averaged 46.5 yards on six punts against Alabama and 42 yards on three attempts against Oregon.

KR: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska: In his final game with the Huskers, Abdullah returned three kicks for 120 yards, including a 49-yarder, in Nebraska's 45-42 National University Holiday Bowl loss to USC.

Overreacting in the Big Ten

January, 15, 2015
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We live in an instant reaction society, in which every development is immediately dissected and analyzed for all it's worth. Often, in this hyperbolic chamber, our first reactions turn out to be overreactions.

That's especially true in football, where a small number of games combines with outsized interest to make everything seem a little more monumental than it probably is. Here are some of the top overreactions from the Big Ten in the 2014 season:

Aug. 19: Ohio State is doomed without Braxton Miller!

What happened: Two-time Big Ten offensive player of the year Miller was ruled out for the season due to a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder.

Overreaction: People began heaping dirt on the Buckeyes' season. Overnight, Ohio State went from league favorite to giant question mark, especially as it turned to a virtually unknown redshirt freshman quarterback with no experience. The entire Big Ten would suffer as a result too.

[+] EnlargeJ.T. Barrett
Khris Hale/Icon SportswireAs with Braxton Miller before him, Ohio State's demise was predicted following an injury to J.T. Barrett.
Reality: J.T. Barrett finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting and won the league's Big Ten quarterback of the year award while breaking a pile of school records. The Buckeyes did not lose a Big Ten game and merely won the national title.

Sept. 6: The Big Ten's playoff hopes are dead!

What happened: Michigan State lost by 19 points at Oregon. Ohio State lost at home by two touchdowns to Virginia Tech. Michigan got embarrassed at Notre Dame.

Overreaction: The Week 2 primetime meltdown ended the playoff possibilities for the Big Ten. The league wouldn't have enough opportunities to change public perception, and even with 10 games left in the regular season, the chance of a Big Ten team in the four-team field was slim.

Reality: The negativity was understandable, given the blowout nature of the losses and the conference's recent history in big games. Heck, many of us here in this blog thought the Big Ten was toast, save for lone optimist Austin Ward. But the losses came early enough in the season for the league to bounce back, and things happened elsewhere to help out the Big Ten's cause. Except for Michigan. That was a lost cause.

Nov. 8: Michigan State's time is over!

What happened: Ohio State ran all over the Spartans 49-37 in a showdown in East Lansing and handed Michigan State its second double-digit loss of the year.

Overreaction: The Spartans' Rose Bowl championship and Big Ten title from the season before were a one-year wonder. The downturn was beginning for Mark Dantonio's program.

Reality: Those two losses don't look so bad in retrospect, as they came to the two teams that played for the national title. The Spartans didn't lose to anyone else and beat Baylor in the Cotton Bowl to cement a top-5 finish in back-to-back years for the first time since the mid-1960s. Only a handful of teams have had as much success the past five years as Michigan State, which is in great shape to maintain its newfound elite status.

Nov. 29: Ohio State is doomed without J.T. Barrett!

What happened: Barrett fractured his ankle in the season finale against Michigan, which left him unavailable for the Big Ten title game against Wisconsin or any postseason game.

Overreaction: If the Miller injury didn't kill Ohio State's chances, then surely this one did. There was no way the Buckeyes could turn to third-string quarterback Cardale Jones and get him ready in one week for Wisconsin's fearsome defense. The Buckeyes were made an underdog in the Big Ten championship game.

Reality: Jones threw for 257 yards and three touchdowns in a 59-0 stomping of the Badgers. He'd go on to defeat Alabama and Oregon in his next two starts.

By now, you'd think we'd know not to doubt Meyer's ability to develop quarterbacks. And given those silly jumps to conclusions, we'll all have learned our lessons about overreacting to news in 2015, right?

Highly doubtful. Here are a a few likely overreactions you'll see this season:

Ohio State's quarterback logjam will be a distraction! Sure, if everybody stays in place, the Buckeyes will have a stuffed stable of quarterbacks, with Miller, Barrett and Jones. But remember that two of them are currently injured, they all love the school, and nothing is guaranteed. Plus, Meyer and his staff are smart enough to figure it out.

Jim Harbaugh's arrival means the return of the Big 2 with Michigan and Ohio State! Yeah, remember when Brady Hoke's early success portended an era in which Michigan and Ohio State would leave the rest of the league behind? Harbaugh will be great, but he's going to need some time to get the Wolverines fixed. Although the Buckeyes are zooming onward and upward, Michigan State and Wisconsin are established, excellent programs, and others such as Nebraska, Penn State and Minnesota aren't far behind. Speaking of the Gophers ...

Minnesota was a fluke! Jerry Kill's team didn't get much credit at all for its eight-win season in 2013 and probably won't be valued highly after an even more impressive eight-win team in 2014. People who just look at stats and returning starters might not be impressed by the Gophers and their sometimes low-wattage offense. But this team is legit and only going to get better under Kill and his staff.

Top early enrollees: Big Ten 

January, 14, 2015
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The Big Ten has quite a few prospects enrolling in January, which means there is potential for those prospects to get a head start on their college careers. With every team looking to fill holes and add depth, here is a look at the five most important early enrollees within the conference.

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- When Minnesota's Jerry Kill, Maryland's Randy Edsall, Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald and Purdue's Darrell Hazell exited the head coaches' convention meeting Tuesday morning, they didn't spell out O-H-I-O.

But all four Big Ten coaches were pleased that Ohio State won the national championship on Monday night, ending the league's 12-year drought since last reaching college football's pinnacle. Unlike many fans, the coaches don't get wrapped up in the endless debate about conference strength, but they don't tune it out, either. They can't.

"It's great for the Big Ten," Kill told ESPN.com. "There's no question about that."

Added Edsall: "It probably eliminates that negative talk about the Big Ten and all those things. It's nice to have one of your conference members win the national championship."

The Big Ten's hubris will never match that of the SEC, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. As one Big Ten assistant joked Monday afternoon about the title game, "You hold your nose and root for Ohio State."

But conference pride exists, and to have the nation's best team shines a positive light on the Big Ten, which has been bashed for the better part of the past decade.

"To play 15 games and to be an on-the-field champion, just ecstatic for those guys, first and foremost," Fitzgerald said of Ohio State. "It also shows that anybody can win, to go play it on the field. You have to go play a competitive schedule but most importantly, you have to win. Everybody's in control of that."

Ohio State's championship isn't just a point of pride for other Big Ten teams, but an inspiration. An Indiana assistant told ESPN.com on Monday that he couldn't believe how much Ohio State had improved late in the season. (Indiana held a third-quarter lead in Ohio Stadium on Nov. 22.)

As Hazell watched the championship game in his hotel room, his thoughts turned to his own team, which was coming off another subpar season.

"It makes you hungry," said Hazell, an Ohio State assistant from 2004-10. "I took it all in. It was a quiet moment, but I sat up in the bed and I watched it by myself and thought, 'These are the things we have to do to move our program forward.'"

Northwestern has endured consecutive losing seasons for the first time since 2001-02, and Fitzgerald hoped that Wildcats players watched the title game and saw how Ohio State, written off in the playoff race early this season, had earned its way onto the sport's biggest stage.

Ohio State coach Urban Meyer has made "The Chase" a theme for his players as they pursue goals. But after Monday night, the Buckeyes have become the hunted.

"Obviously, they're the team to chase," Hazell said. "It's a credit to their staff, their recruiting department. They're out there now. They are really out there."

The rest of the Big Ten is trying to catch Ohio State. And for the first time since 2003, so is the rest of the country.

Brian Bennett contributed to this report.

Final 2014 Big Ten Power Rankings

January, 13, 2015
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» More Final 2014 Power Rankings: Top 25 | ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

» More 2015 Too-Early Rankings: Top 25 | ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

The 2014 season just ended, but we're already looking ahead to next season. Here are our way-too-early 2015 Big Ten power rankings, which are subject (and guaranteed) to change a lot between now and August.

 
Underclassmen still have until Jan. 15 to decide whether to declare for the NFL draft. But, in the meantime, we decided to take a look at those who already made their decisions public.

Here are the 11 Big Ten players (listed alphabetically) leaving early, their draft rankings and who's in line to replace them:

Penn State DE Deion Barnes, 6-foot-4, 255 pounds

2014 stats: 44 tackles, 12.5 tackles-for-loss, 6 sacks, 3 QB hurries

ESPN.com Draft Overall Rank: N/A

ESPN.com Draft Position Rank: N/A. There are not yet any ESPN grades on him, but he’s not believed to be a top-10 defensive end. One NFL.com contributor said he could go “as early as the second day of the draft” – if he impresses at pro day or the combine.

Who’s taking over: With DE C.J. Olaniyan also entering the draft, Penn State will likely fill one spot with Garrett Sickels. The other? Former walk-on Carl Nassib and freshman Torrence Brown are the most likely candidates at this point.




Indiana RB Tevin Coleman, 6-foot, 210 pounds

2014 stats: 270 carries, 2,036 rushing yards, 7.5 ypc, 15 TDs; 25 catches, 141 yards

ESPN.com Draft Overall Rank: No. 36. “Runs hard and doesn’t shy away from contact along sidelines. … Rarely tackled for loss thanks in large part to burst.”

ESPN.com Draft Position Rank: No. 3.

Who’s taking over: Former UAB running back Jordan Howard recently decided to transfer to Indiana, in part because of Coleman’s decision to declare early. He’ll likely be the starter. He rushed for 1,587 yards as a sophomore in 2014.




Maryland WR Stefon Diggs, 6-foot, 195 pounds

2014 stats: 62 catches, 792 yards, 5 TDs

ESPN.com Draft Overall Rank: No. 78. “Zone buster that locates pockets underneath and uses speed to attack seams downfield. … Good focus and catches ball in stride.”

ESPN.com Draft Position Rank: No. 15.

Who’s taking over: With the graduation of Deon Long, Marcus Leak and Jacquille Veii are in line to be the top-two wideouts. The pair also could be challenged by younger players such as Levern Jacobs, Taivon Jacobs and Juwann Winfree.




Michigan WR Devin Funchess, 6-5, 235 pounds

2014 stats: 62 catches, 733 yards, 4 TDs

ESPN.com Draft Overall Rank: No. 20. “Quick enough to separate from most linebackers and some safeties. ... Can extend and catch away from frame.”

ESPN.com Draft Position Rank: No. 4.

Who’s taking over: Amara Darboh is the obvious candidate here, since his number was most often called in Funchess’ absence. He was second in both catches (36) and yards (473).




Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon, 6-1, 207 pounds

2014 stats: 343 carries, 2,587 yards, 29 TDs, 7.5 ypc; 19 catches, 153 yards, 3 TDs

ESPN.com Draft Overall Rank: No. 16. “Fearless runner that doesn’t gear down or brace for contact. … Anticipation isn’t outstanding and misses occasional seam, but that is an exception … Violent jump cuts.”

ESPN.com Draft Position Rank: No. 1.

Who’s taking over: Corey Clement saw considerable time the past two seasons, so he’ll be taking over as the main ball-carrier. He finished 2014 with 949 yards and 9 TDs.




Nebraska DE Randy Gregory, 6-6, 245 pounds

2014 stats: 54 tackles, 10 tackles-for-loss, 7 sacks, 16 QB hurries, 2 blocked kicks

ESPN.com Draft Overall Rank: No. 5. “Above average first-step quickness, adequate bend and above average closing speed. … Best fit is 3-4 OLB … Can line up at 4-3 RDE but ideally he would add weight and get stronger first.”

ESPN.com Draft Position Rank: No. 3.

Who’s taking over: Former walk-on Jack Gangwish started when Gregory was injured this season, and he’ll be a senior next year. Gangwish finished with 19 tackles and four tackles-for-loss in 2014.




Rutgers TE Tyler Kroft, 6-6, 240 pounds

2014 stats: 24 catches, 269 yards, 0 TDs

ESPN.com Draft Overall Rank: N/A

ESPN.com Draft Position Rank: N/A. Mel Kiper listed him as the fifth-best tight end prospect in October, but Kroft does not yet have a new draft grade/ranking.

Who’s taking over: Nick Arcidiacono and Matt Flanagan both played behind Kroft in 2014, so they’re next in line. Flanagan played in nine games; Arcidiacono played in 10 (and started one). They finished with just one catch apiece.




Penn State OT Donovan Smith, 6-5, 340 pounds

2014 stats: 11 starts at left tackle

ESPN.com Draft Overall Rank: N/A. No ESPN grades/ranks yet on Smith here, but OurLads.com’s Dan Shonka recently told us Smith would likely be a late third- or fourth-rounder.

ESPN.com Draft Position Rank: N/A.

Who’s taking over: Right tackle Andrew Nelson could move over to left, meaning that junior-college signee Paris Palmer – the nation’s No. 25 overall juco player – would become the new starter on the line.




Ohio State DE Noah Spence, 6-3, 250 pounds

2014 stats: Did not play. He was suspended indefinitely after failing another drug test in September; his appeal was denied in November.

ESPN.com Draft Overall Rank: No. 92. No scouting report is available, but he’s listed as an outside linebacker for the NFL draft.

ESPN.com Draft Position Rank: No. 6 (at outside linebacker).

Who’s taking over: Well, in this case, someone already took over – and that’s senior Steve Miller. So far, he has 33 tackles and 6.5 tackles-for-loss this season. But he’ll be most remembered for a pick-6 against Alabama.




Michigan State CB Trae Waynes, 6-1, 182 pounds

2014 stats: 46 tackles, 2 tackles-for-loss, 3 interceptions, 8 pass breakups, 11 deflections

ESPN.com Draft Overall Rank: No. 22. “Above average field awareness. Shows strong eyes in zone coverage. … Above-average fluidity and balance with movement skills.”

ESPN.com Draft Position Rank: No. 1.

Who’s taking over: Safety Demetrious Cox could move to cornerback, or the position could be filled by Jermaine Edmondson, who backed up Waynes this past season. (Darian Hicks will likely reclaim his old spot at field corner.)




Minnesota TE Maxx Williams, 6-4, 250 pounds

2014 stats: 36 catches, 569 yards, 8 TDs

ESPN.com Draft Overall Rank: N/A. As a redshirt sophomore who recently declared, there are not yet any ESPN grades/rankings on him – but he’s right outside the top-32 overall players on at least one other analyst’s big board.

ESPN.com Draft Position Rank: N/A.

Who’s taking over: With the departure of fellow TE Drew Goodger, mostly a blocker, there’ll be several new faces vying for time. Lincoln Plsek played in every game and saw the most time this season while Duke Anyanwu, who missed the year with a torn ACL, could challenge for a spot. Brandon Lingen, Nick Hart and Nate Wozniak also could factor in.
Most see New Year's Day as a new beginning, a clean slate, a time where the present decleats the past like Tony Lippett decleated poor Chris Callahan in the Cotton Bowl (it's OK, the Baylor kicker is alive). Big Ten fans are no different, but for them, New Year's Day had become Groundhog Day -- and not in a good way.

Remember when Bill Murray, in the 1993 movie "Groundhog Day," kept finding creative ways to kill himself because he knew he'd have another chance in the morning? My favorite: when Phil (the man) kidnaps Phil (the groundhog) in a pickup truck and drives into a quarry. The day's master of ceremonies, Buster, tells the cop who's trying to stop him: "If you gotta shoot, aim high. I don't wanna hit the groundhog."

Words to live by.

[+] EnlargeOhio State celebration
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesOhio State's victory over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl capped a banner New Year's Day for the Big Ten.
As Phil (the man) said: "I've killed myself so many times, I don't even exist anymore."

That had been the Big Ten on New Year's Day -- different and occasionally entertaining methods of failure ending with the same morbid result, followed by the familiar onslaught of national criticism. If Big Ten fans wanted to spend Jan. 1 away from televisions, computers, cell phones and stadiums just to escape the inevitable, who could blame them?

New Year's Day 2011 is one that will live in Big Ten infamy, as the league went 0-5 in bowls. Things didn't improve much, as the Big Ten went 4-10 on the next three New Year's days. (The 2012 games were played on Jan. 2 because of the NFL playoffs.)

Most Big Ten fans can't stand the way the league clusters most of its major bowl games on New Year's Day -- except for the Rose Bowl, of course. Their complaint makes sense, as it's hard to track all of the teams at once. The method becomes more maddening when every Big Ten team loses, turning New Year's Day into a national showcase of Big Ten ineptitude.

The conference appeared headed toward another New Year's downer last week. Wisconsin saw a late lead disappear against Auburn, Michigan State was getting pummeled by Baylor and Minnesota couldn't get out of its own way against Missouri. Ohio State was playing Alabama in a College Football Playoff semifinal that night at the Allstate Sugar Bowl, but the Buckeyes, starting a third-string quarterback against the mighty Tide defense, were a long shot to advance.

Another Big Ten New Year's oh-fer seemed imminent, complete with another reminder from the SEC that the Big Ten wasn't up to snuff with the top conferences. It's OK if you stopped watching.

But then quarterback Joel Stave got hot and Wisconsin sent the Outback Bowl to overtime, where it prevailed 34-31. Michigan State mounted one of the wildest comebacks in bowl history, erasing a 20-point fourth-quarter deficit to win 42-41.

Hours later, Ohio State beat Bama, piling up 42 points and 537 yards in a definitive victory that, despite ending just after midnight ET, still counts as part of the Big Ten's New Year's haul.

And what a haul it was. New Year's Day 2015 marked the Big Ten's best day in 4,382 days -- specifically, since Jan. 3, 2003, when Ohio State beat Miami to win the league's most recent national championship and its only title in the BCS era. The logjam of games fans gripe about suddenly wasn't so annoying.

Ohio State's victory carried the day because of who it came against and where it took place. Ultimately, the Big Ten needs a team to win a national title, but the Buckeyes' win against what most consider the nation's premier program in SEC territory will reverberate, regardless of what they do against Oregon a week from now.

Fairly or not, Wisconsin had become the epitome of Big Ten big-game futility in recent years. The Badgers dropped three straight Rose Bowls and last year's Capital One Bowl. They blew a big lead against LSU in this season's opener, and with an assist from Pac-12 officials, stumbled last fall at Arizona State. Badgers fans had seen the movie before, the one with underwhelming quarterback play and not quite enough speed, and braced for the familiar ending. But this time, Wisconsin came through to beat a talented Auburn squad.

A 10-win season -- Michigan State's fourth in the past five seasons -- is nothing to sneeze at, but the Spartans needed a signature victory to stamp the 2014 campaign as another success. They fell short of their preseason goals but recorded their team-record fourth consecutive bowl win. Now that Jim Harbaugh is at Michigan, you'll hear a lot about how the Big Two -- Michigan and Ohio State -- will lord over the league again. It's a lazy theory. Mark Dantonio and his Spartans aren't going anywhere, as the bowl win reminded everyone.

New Year's Day gave the league something it rarely has this time of year: momentum. The national media will never toast the Big Ten the way it does the SEC, but credit is being doled out, even from some reluctant sources.

There's also talk about the Big Ten's bright future, and rightfully so.

Regardless of what happens Jan. 12 at Jerry World, Ohio State should have a better team this coming season. Love him or hate him, Urban Meyer is the best thing that happened to the Big Ten.

Michigan State returns quarterback Connor Cook, a proven winner, and several other key pieces. Wisconsin rolls on with a new coach (Paul Chryst) who can fix an old problem (inconsistent quarterback play). Michigan hired the perfect coach to fast-track its comeback. Penn State, another Big Ten bowl winner, will improve as James Franklin injects more talent and depth into the roster.

Despite its bowl loss, Minnesota is ascending under Jerry Kill. If new Nebraska coach Mike Riley maximizes the talent on his roster, the Big Ten will have another team in the national discussion. The Big Ten's much-panned new additions, Rutgers and Maryland, don't look so bad after Year 1. Even Indiana got some good news on New Year's Day, as UAB standout running back Jordan Howard announced he would transfer to IU.

Groundhog Day is over for the Big Ten and its fans.

After seemingly a decade of cold, harsh, unrelenting winter, the sun is out in the heartland.
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No. 16 Missouri evened the playing field in a best-of-three showdown between the SEC and the Big Ten on New Year’s Day. The Tigers outran No. 25 Minnesota in a 33-17 victory at the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Florida.

Missouri beat the Gophers at their own game by running for 337 yards and winning the turnover battle. Minnesota fumbled five times and the Tigers recovered three of them. Running backs Marcus Murphy and Russell Hansbrough broke off several long runs late in the game that helped boost Mizzou’s average to 7.5 yards per carry and helped close out the win.

The victory ended a three-bowl losing streak for the SEC after a rough day for Mississippi State and Ole Miss on Dec. 31. Wisconsin also knocked off Auburn in overtime less than an hour before the Citrus Bowl ended. The rubber match between the two conferences on Thursday will take place in the Allstate Sugar Bowl between conference champions Alabama and Ohio State.

Game ball goes to: Murphy finished his college career with 157 rushing yards on 12 carries. His biggest run of the day was a 69-yard dagger that set up the Tigers for a game-clinching score in the fourth quarter. He also returned a punt to the end zone before that play was called back because of an illegal block.

What it means: The victory gives Mizzou its best two-year victory total in program history. The back-to-back SEC East winners have won 23 games during the last two seasons and the Tigers have their first three-game bowl winning streak since 1979. The Gophers drop to 8-5 with their third bowl loss in the last three seasons. Despite taking positive steps this season, Minnesota finished with an identical record to a year ago.

Best play: Minnesota’s final lead of the day came on a 54-yard touchdown reception by all-Big Ten tight end Maxx Williams. The 6-foot-4, 250-pound Williams went airborne to get to the end zone. He hurdled one defender in stride at the 15-yard line and launched himself over another to get across the goal line. The score gave the Gophers a 14-13 lead early in the third quarter.
video What’s next: Missouri will gear up for a third unexpected SEC East championship next season without Murphy. The Tigers also could be losing redshirt junior Shane Ray, the SEC’s most productive pass-rusher, to the NFL draft. Minnesota heads to the offseason with a degree of optimism after playing in its first New Year’s Day bowl in more than 50 years.

Minnesota's next aim: Keeping Kill happy

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Regardless of the outcome of Thursday's Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl against Missouri, it's obvious that Jerry Kill has Minnesota on an upward track.

Kill has led the Gophers to three straight bowls and back-to-back eight-win regular seasons. Minnesota, which had a chance to win the Big Ten West on the final weekend at Wisconsin, is appearing in its first New Year's Day bowl since 1962. Kill was named the Big Ten coach of the year this season for his work.

[+] EnlargeJerry Kill
Trevor Ruszkowski/USA TODAY SportsMinnesota aims to keep head coach Jerry Kill with the program for many years to come.
Minnesota found the right guy to build its program back up. But can the school keep Kill happy and take the next step forward with him?

Not surprisingly, Kill's name was mentioned at least in passing for a few job openings this past month. But Gophers athletic director Norwood Teague told ESPN.com that no other schools ever contacted him about wanting to speak with Kill. Minnesota gave Kill a contract extension through 2018 and raised his salary from $1.2 to $2.1 million back in February. Could another such raise be in the works?

"We're always talking about his contract and the way we support the program," Teague said. "It's more important to him that we invest in the program -- in his assistant coaches and our facilities."

The facilities piece is a big one. The Gophers lag behind other Big Ten programs in that area, especially with an indoor practice space that they share with other campus teams and one which often springs leaks in the roof. Minnesota is in the midst of a $190 million fundraising effort for a new central athletic village that would include renovations to the Gibson-Nagurski football complex and an academic center.

"The biggest reward that needs to take place is getting the building built," Kill told TwinCities.com recently. "That's got to take place. That's important. Like we told our recruits, we get the shovel in the ground here quickly, certainly before the summer is out -- that's the stride we've been missing."

Teague calls the athletic village "a critical part of our future." The timing with the New Year's Day bowl game, then, is fortuitous as the program continues to drum up the funding.

"It certainly helps," Teague said. "It adds a lot of enthusiasm and positive feelings to what you're doing, and you can't put a price tag on that."

Kill has said he sees Minnesota as home and wants to lead the program over the long haul. It means a lot that the school stuck by him while he battled to find the right treatment for his epilepsy, a condition that caused him to take a brief leave of absence in 2013.

"During that time I was as supportive of him as I'll ever be," Teague said. "If you've met Jerry Kill, you don't ever question his toughness or his ability to get through something like that. I always thought he'd be back and he'd be where he is now."

He's one of the most popular football coaches the Gophers have had in years. The school has to make sure he has all the resources he needs to keep succeeding.

"I think Jerry will be very loyal," Teague said, "but I've got to be very proactive in how we support the program. We've got to do things to invest in the program. If we do that, I think we'll keep Jerry here a long time."

Gophers bring back the New Year's party

December, 30, 2014
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Jerry KillTrevor Ruszkowski/USA TODAY SportsJerry Kill has Minnesota in a New Year's Day bowl game for the first time in 53 years.
The last time Minnesota played in a New Year's Day bowl game, John F. Kennedy was wrapping up his first year in office, gas cost 28 cents per gallon and no one had yet heard of the Beatles.

The Gophers' 21-3 win over UCLA in the 1962 Rose Bowl was the first national broadcast of a college football game in that newfangled technology of color TV. Perhaps rising ad executive Don Draper watched it.

Yes, it's been a long wait to get back to New Year's Day -- 53 years, to be exact. So you can understand why No. 25 Minnesota has been so anxiously anticipating about its Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl matchup against No. 16 Missouri.

"It's tangible," senior defensive lineman Cameron Botticelli said. "When you walked into our indoor practice facility [earlier this month], you could feel it, smell it, taste it. There's excitement in the air."

The significance of a New Year's Day bowl has changed over the years, especially with the proliferation of postseason games and as major games creeped later into January in recent times. But with the advent of the College Football Playoff, Jan. 1 has become a milestone date again, and the Gophers are thrilled to be a part of the special day.

"I still think with kids that means something, to be playing on January 1," head coach Jerry Kill said. "It's a mindset, a tradition. You know you're playing in a prestigious bowl."

Minnesota fans have responded. The school had sold more than 7,600 tickets from its official allotment to the Citrus Bowl as of Sunday, according to a team spokesman. That's more tickets than the Gophers sold in their past two bowl games combined and more than twice as many who bought seats through the school for last year's Texas Bowl. The contingent includes six busloads of students who are making the more than 24-hour journey to Orlando, and there's a waiting list for a spot on that convoy.

This is the program's first trip to Florida for a bowl since the 2000 MicronPC game in Miami. Minnesota spent the past two seasons in Houston at the Texas Bowl and played on New Year's Eve in Phoenix at the 2008 and 2009 Insight Bowls. Kill and his staff recruit Florida heavily.

"I don't think there's any question that visibility in Florida is important to us," Kill said.

Last year's Texas Bowl was held on Dec. 27. While playing five days later may not seem like much, the New Year's Day spot allowed the players to have more of a break earlier this month to concentrate on finals before returning to practice. And they were able to get home for Christmas Eve instead of celebrating the holiday with their teammates in some hotel ballroom. Players also gained a little more time to heal their bumps and bruises after playing some physical games down the stretch of the regular season against the likes of Ohio State, Nebraska and Wisconsin.

The Gophers were disappointed to come up just short in their bid to win the Big Ten West, and they don't want that feeling after another bowl game. Following last year's 21-17 loss to Syracuse in the Texas Bowl, Kill told his players that they should be "starving" for more success. That helped push the team throughout the offseason and toward this year's 8-4 record.

"It's nice to be a part of history," Botticelli said. "Whether we win or lose, we'll be the team that played in a Jan. 1 bowl for the first time in 53 years. However, it's important to remember, history remembers winners. We want to win and be remembered as winners
That's the fire that drives our preparation."

They'll get a chance to measure up against the SEC East Division champion in Missouri, which shouldn't be intimidating since the Gophers have already played TCU and Ohio State this season. A win would allow Minnesota to finish the season ranked for the first time since 2003.

"We got some bricks moving forward this season," Kill said. "Certainly, winning the bowl game would be a huge one."

Especially so if it happened on New Year's Day.
Michigan State's secondary calls itself the "No Fly Zone." LSU bills itself as "DBU" -- Defensive Back University.

Minnesota lacks a widely known nickname for its secondary, which is fine for now.

"Maybe in another year or two, we get there," Gophers defensive backs coach Jay Sawvel recently told ESPN.com. "We don't need catchphrases because every day here, you're still fighting for respect."

[+] EnlargeBriean Boddy-Calhoun
AP Photo/Nati HarnikBriean Boddy-Calhoun is one reason Minnesota's low-key secondary has maintained a high level.
The fight isn't an original one. Groups of players adopt it in every sport, in every year. But the formula has worked for Minnesota's secondary, which has quietly emerged as one of the Big Ten's best groups the past few years.

Arguably no Big Ten team had a better cornerback tandem this season than Minnesota's Briean Boddy-Calhoun and Eric Murray. Safety Cedric Thompson led the unit and Damarius Travis provided versatility and durability. Calhoun, Thompson and Travis combined for eight interceptions and five forced fumbles, helping Minnesota tie for 10th nationally in average turnover margin.

Like the Minnesota program, which has reached a third consecutive bowl game under coach Jerry Kill, the secondary isn't a one-year riser. It has strung together several solid seasons, employing an aggressive, complex scheme that produces big plays from multiple contributors. Yet few have taken notice. Before the season, Sawvel showed his players a ranking of Big Ten secondaries that had Minnesota 11th following the loss of all-conference performer Brock Vereen, a fourth-round NFL draft pick.

"It was a symbol that, 'Hey, you don't have the respect of the guy who had equivalent production at Penn State or Michigan State or Iowa,'" Sawvel said. "We can play a lack-of-respect card around here because truthfully, it has been that way."

It's easy for Sawvel to motivate his players like this. Of Minnesota's top six defensive backs -- Boddy-Calhoun, Murray, Thompson, Travis, cornerback Derrick Wells and safety Antonio Johnson -- none received another Power 5 offer coming out of high school.

"I'm a guy that likes to be underrated and overlooked," Boddy-Calhoun said. "People still little-brother us with the whole Minnesota thing."

The departure of Vereen fueled the tepid expectations outside the Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex. Two reasons have prevented a Gopher backslide: the emergence of Boddy-Calhoun and Travis.

Boddy-Calhoun led Minnesota in interceptions (four) and passes defended (12). He forced six total turnovers, more than all but two Big Ten players (Maryland's Will Likely and Nebraska's Nate Gerry).

The junior's breakout season came a year late. Poised for big things in 2013, Boddy-Calhoun had an 89-yard pick-six in Minnesota's opening win against UNLV. The following week he tore his ACL at New Mexico State, ending his season.

"I had big plans," Boddy-Calhoun said. "I put all that frustration and anger and used that as motivation to come back."

Sawvel knew Boddy-Calhoun was back when he made a slick over-the-shoulder interception on a fade route against TCU in Week 3.

"He was a really, really good basketball player in high school," Sawvel said. "You can see that point guard capability. He's the guy that sort of has the ball on a string."

Boddy-Calhoun provides playmaking, while Travis' ability to wear so many hats well has boosted Minnesota's secondary. He plays both nickel linebacker and high safety, and appears on every special teams unit.

Travis logged 95 plays against Nebraska and 96 against Wisconsin. He recorded 56 tackles, two interceptions, a forced fumble and five pass breakups this season.

"He's big enough to fill in gaps and be good on the run, but he's also athletic enough to cover wide receivers, short guys, big guys," Boddy-Calhoun said. "He gave our defense a whole lot of versatility."

Travis' versatility allows Minnesota to diversify its scheme. You'll see snippets of Nebraska's matchup zone and Michigan State's Cover 4 in what the Gophers run, along with more man coverage than many secondaries. Minnesota's defensive backs, Sawvel said, "have a pretty good toolbox."

Travis recalls a play against Nebraska where Minnesota showed man but then dropped into Cover 3. It nearly led to an interception for Boddy-Calhoun.

"We have a real good disguise," Travis said. "We're always trying to paint a picture for the quarterback that he doesn't know what coverage we're in so he's a little shocked about what he sees and starts scrambling and starts panicking a little bit.

"That's what we really like."

The Gophers' defensive backs are a mature, focused, competitive group with football and a close-knit group off of the field. There have been dinners and bowling nights and even a trip to the go-kart track, where Travis edged Boddy-Calhoun in the final ("It came down to the last lap," Boddy-Calhoun laments).

The players call themselves "Dem Boyz" -- "For DBs," Boddy-Calhoun explained -- and have their own anthem (Wiz Khalifa's "We Dem Boyz").

Thursday, Dem Boyz take the field in Orlando against Missouri in the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl. It's Minnesota's first January appearance since the 1962 Rose Bowl.

Not a bad time to gain a W, and a little bit of the R-word, too.

"It's a big deal," Boddy-Calhoun said. "We get to make a statement as to who we are as a team. And as a secondary, we get to show the world on Jan. 1 what we are capable of."

Here's a hint: A lot.

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