With just five returning starters from last year's team, the Gopher offense will be very reliant on play of Da'Jon McKnight, Eric Lair, Du'ane Bennett, Chris Bunders and Ed Olson. Even though MarQueis Gray is being broken in as starter at quarterback, he will have the luxury of having two of the Big Ten's top pass catchers at wide receiver and tight end.
Gray will also have a running back in Bennett who is equally capable of breaking off a big run on a running play as he is catching the ball out of the backfield. The problem for Bennett in the past has been his ability to stay healthy. The combination of his violent style of running and the number of carries he gets early in the season has lead to him suffering injuries later on in the year. A healthy Bennett could be a big boost for the Gophers in 2011.
Lair and McKnight haven't garnered the amount of accolades as other players in the conference, despite being two of the better players at their respective positions last season. Opposing defenses will most likely key on these two until another wide receiver can step up and take the pressure off of them. Despite the attention they will get, McKnight and Lair still pose mismatches for opposing defenses with McKnight's big play ability and Lair's size and speed a combination.
On the offensive line, Bunders and Olson are the only two returning starters and will be expected to hold down the left side of the line. As noted earlier, Orton and Wynn also have experience which will helps in what would have been a relatively inexperienced line otherwise. Olson started eight games last season and showed significant improvement throughout the season. That experience he gained last season will carry over into this season and Gophers should expect to see him grow and mature even more this year.
Despite returning less than half of their starters from last year's squad, this year's Gophers will have a lot of experience on the offensive side of the ball. The key for this year will be how quickly can the offense adjust to a new system and how quickly can Gray adjust to becoming a full time starter at quarterback.
This season starts off with a bang as the Gophers will be visiting a very talented USC squad and the learning curve for the offense will be steep. That learning curve will be helped by an offensive line that has made a combined 61 starts. This experience should help keep the pressure off of newly-anointed starter Gray and also help a rushing attack which ranked 86th in the nation last year at 135.3 yards per game.
Best Case Scenario
The best outlook for the Gophers this season would be for the offensive line to gel early and open up running lanes for the new run-first offense and keeping Gray's jersey clean on passing plays. If Gray can adapt to playing quarterback full time and the running game becomes respectable respectable this Gopher squad could finish the season 7-5 or 8-4 if they can win some tough games at home and come up with some road victories.
Worst Case Scenario
The worst case scenario for this Gopher team would be a 3-9 record and 0-8 in conference play. In this scenario the offense can't quite adjust to the new scheme and Gray struggles in his first year at quarterback. The offensive line can't quite gel and fails to get a good push up front and develop a solid running game. If no other wide receiver can step up and take the pressure off of McKnight and Lair, teams will be able to game plan to take those two out of the picture and stack the box against the run.
Realistically Gopher fans can expect to see the usual bumps along the way that come with a new coaching staff and six new starters on offense. This season the Gophers should finish the non-conference schedule with a 3-1 record entering league play. Gray will most likely take a few games to get up to speed and shake off rust but as they enter league play, he should start settling into the starting roll. Offensively the Gophers rushing attack should be much better than in years past, most likely around 60th in the nation. With pass catchers like Lair and McKnight, the Gophers passing attack should be fairly respectable. With and experienced defense returning as well this year's Gopher team should finish with 5-6 wins.