Gophers looking to build off '02 bowl-game win

Updated: August 21, 2003, 7:03 PM ET

MINNEAPOLIS -- The schedule says Minnesota begins the 2003 campaign next weekend like just about everybody else, but the Gophers are adamant their season actually began back in December.

Last year, a 3-5 record in the Big Ten and four straight losses to close the conference season earned Minnesota a token bid to the Music City Bowl.

The Gophers regrouped, though, and beat Arkansas 29-14 behind a revamped defense.

"The whole mind-set was that last year's bowl game was the start of this year," said linebacker Dominique Sims. "The beginning of things."

Now they've got to carry that momentum over.

On first glance, it's a typical August for Minnesota. Unranked in the preseason polls, though receiving a handful of votes. Overlooked in the Big Ten race, though picked to finish fifth, sixth or seventh. More than a dozen returning starters, though no Heisman Trophy candidates.

But these guys seem to believe, more so than in the past, that this year is going to be better. An 8-5 record and seventh place in the Big Ten won't be enough.

"No one really knows how good we're going to be this year," said quarterback Asad Abdul-Khaliq, who has been the starter for parts of the last three seasons and enters the year healthy after playing most of 2002 on a bum ankle.

"We want people to go, 'Whoa. We didn't have these guys picked, but they definitely showed it."

The Gophers have a lot of things going for them. Abdul-Khaliq, though plagued by inconsistency and injuries throughout his career, is an experienced leader with the trust of the offense. Ben Utecht is one of the nation's top tight ends, and sophomore center Greg Eslinger is a rising star.

Terry Jackson II rushed for 1,317 yards last year when Marion Barber III was redshirted with a nagging hamstring injury, and bruising fullback Thomas Tapeh also returns to the backfield.

"We've got at least three good ones," coach Glen Mason said. "As long as they stay healthy and play well, don't look for us to be in a one-back set all the time. We'll play the best players we have."

Greg Hudson was promoted to defensive coordinator just before the bowl game, and after allowing 169 points over their final four Big Ten games, the unit that showed up in Nashville on Dec. 30 looked completely different.

The Gophers should be stronger against the run, with tackle Darrell Reid, linebacker Ben West and free safety Eli Ward leading a more-aggressive defense.

"One game doesn't make or break you, but the key thing I know is that we've got a lot of those players back," Mason said. "They're bigger, faster, stronger and they're more experienced. That's not bad."

The schedule, once again, should help.

The Gophers don't have to play defending national champion Ohio State or preseason No. 19 Purdue, and they get Michigan and Wisconsin at home.

Nonconference games against Tulsa, Troy State, Ohio and Louisiana-Lafayette should give them a healthy record headed into the conference opener at Penn State on Sept. 27.

"It's something we don't take lightly," Abdul-Khaliq said. "Just because we don't play the No. 1 team or something like that in the preseason doesn't mean it's a guaranteed win. But if we can go into the conference games 4-0, it'll be a big boost for us."

Home dates against Michigan (Oct. 11) and Michigan State (Oct. 18), however, might have to be rescheduled in anticipation of the Twins' reappearance in Major League Baseball's playoffs. The worst-case scenario has the Gophers playing both those games at a neutral site such as Detroit's Ford Field.

Mason will need a strong showing to avoid speculation about keeping his job. The cash-strapped athletic department badly needs fans to fill up the Metrodome, a tough thing to do with an unappealing list of nonconference opponents and a sterile stadium that's not on campus.

Mason is 34-37 in his six years at Minnesota, with a 1-2 record in bowl games. His best Big Ten finish was a tie for fourth place in 1999.

"I think he's a great coach," said Utecht, one of 15 seniors on the roster. "I trusted that he was going to turn this program around. He's done a great job, and hopefully this season will be the pinnacle of that."

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index