Forget that Minnesota has finished no higher than fourth in the
Big Ten in the past 17 years, or that it last claimed the
conference title in 1967. The Golden Gophers are carrying serious
attitude into the season. Literally. Since spring practice each
player has been toting in his wallet a laminated card, designed
by strength coach Mike Chism, that bears a picture of the Rose
Bowl (where the Gophers haven't played a January game since 1962)
and three words: WHY NOT US?
Why not, indeed. Every year some team sneaks up on the nation to
become the toast of college football. Northwestern defied
expectations to share the Big Ten title in 2000. Maryland had had
one winning season in 10 years before taking the ACC crown in
2001. Last year unheralded Iowa, led by quarterback Brad Banks,
went to the Orange Bowl.
Minnesota could be next. Since former Kansas coach Glen Mason
took over in 1997, the erstwhile Giants of the North have been
gently stirring. Last year the Gophers went 8-5, capping the year
with a dominating 29-14 victory over heavily favored Arkansas in
the Music City Bowl. A speech by quarterback Asad Abdul-Khaliq
just before kickoff proved prophetic. "Asad said no one believed
we could win," says senior tight end Ben Utecht, "but what
mattered was that we believed."
Bolstered by a forgiving schedule (Michigan at home, no Ohio
State or Purdue), Minnesota carries that confidence into 2003.
With 17 starters returning, the Gophers are also one of the most
experienced teams in the Big Ten, and they have the conference's
best tight end in Utecht, who had 37 catches for 480 yards
despite playing with a stress fracture in his left foot for the
final eight games of the year.
The key to any title run, though, is Abdul-Khaliq. He came to
Minnesota from a crime-ridden neighborhood in Elizabeth, N.J.,
and a postgrad stop at Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy. In his
third year as the Gophers' starter, Abdul-Khaliq would like to
follow in the footsteps of Banks, who busted out as a senior,
throwing 26 touchdown passes and only five interceptions. "I had
so much respect for his consistency," says Abdul-Khaliq, who had
19 TDs but 11 picks last year. "I'm hoping my experience pays off
in the same way."
Known for his scrambling, Abdul-Khaliq has devoted the off-season
to perfecting his grasp of the Gophers' spread offense. His
comfort level has been boosted during preseason scrimmages by
Mason, who has had his quarterback calling the plays. The idea,
says the coach, is to "bring Asad back to those Jersey
playgrounds of his youth."
Away from practice Abdul-Khaliq is thinking about far bigger
arenas--like the stadium he sees every time he opens his wallet.
"We've been happy to play in any bowl," he says, "but a January 1
game is what this team is destined for."
Who are the potential surprises in the other major conferences?
These teams weren't among SI's preseason Top 25 but could disrupt
the balance of power if the ball bounces their way.
Big 12 MISSOURI No one wants to face supersoph QB Brad Smith
(3,362 total yards).
Pac-10 OREGON STATE Main weapon is RB Steven Jackson, above
(1,690 yards, 15 TDs).
ACC WAKE FOREST Deacons are well-stocked on D, led by LB Brad
White (94 tackles).
Big East WEST VIRGINIA Dual-threat QB Rasheed Marshall runs
SEC MISSISSIPPI If Eli Manning (14-10 as starter) lives up to his
bloodlines, watch out.