Conference Schedule A Big Test

The Gophers should once be heavy favorites during their non-conference football schedule, but once Big Ten play opens the Gophers have a slate that will test their mettle.

The Golden Gophers have made the postseason each of the past three seasons, but only after a sizzling start turned into a fizzling finish.

In 2002, Minnesota started 7-1 and then lost four in a row.

In 2003, Minnesota was 6-0 and then lost at home to Michigan and Michigan State.

In 2004, Minnesota was 5-0 and then lost on the road to Michigan and Michigan ... as well as five of its last six in the regular season.

The fast starts can be attributed in part to a soft non-conference schedule (although last year's schedule included MAC toughie Toledo and a road game at normally stout Colorado State). Whatever the case, the Gophers have gone 14-0 against non-conference foes in the past three seasons, including wins over Arkansas, Oregon and Alabama in bowl games.

This season should see another good start, as Minnesota begins against Tulsa, Colorado State and Florida Atlantic.

But the roof could cave in again once conference play begins — and this time it could happen against a team other than Michigan, which has rallied late in each of the past two seasons to beat the Gophers.

Minnesota starts this season against Purdue, and then must travel to Penn State and Michigan. There is also a home game against Ohio State and a season-finale at Iowa. The Gophers need to start beating some upper-division conference teams to turn those mid-level bowl appearances into something on New Year's Day.

2006 DRAFT PROSPECTS

WR Jared Ellerson --
He has proven to be a big-play performer in the past. With QB Bryan Cupito significantly more experienced heading into his junior year, Ellerson could put up big numbers.

C Greg Eslinger -- One of the finest centers in the conference, Eslinger should contend for All-America honors.

RB Laurence Maroney -- While he is just a junior, Maroney saw his backfield mate Marion Barber III opt out before his senior year and then get drafted in the fourth round by Dallas. Most scouts believe Maroney is the better prospect with a much better chance of being drafted on the first day.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "We have to be a better defense on third-and-long, obvious passing situations. That was our downfall last year. We did a pretty good job getting offenses behind the eight ball, and then let them out of the box, and we have to be better in that area." -- Glen Mason on one of his key goals for the Minnesota defense.


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