Mark Snyder believes in his Gophers.
So you can imagine the assistant coach's distress when he saw them tabbed to finish eighth in the upcoming Big Ten football race.
"Why are you surprised?" third-year head coach Glen Mason asked. "Would you put us ahead of Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State (labeled the Holy Trinity on Wednesday by a Chicago scribe)?
"You've got Michigan State coming off a 10-win season and a big bowl win over Florida.
"Wisconsin is the two-time defending Rose Bowl champion (and picked in the nation's top five by Sporting News, Athlon, Street & Smith's and Lindy's).
"Purdue has the country's best quarterback in Drew Brees.
"That brings it down to Illinois and us for seventh."
"Well," Snyder said, "we beat the Illini on their own field, 37-7."
"Yeah," Mason said, "but after that, Illinois won at Michigan and Ohio State and scored 63 points in a big bowl win over Virginia.
"I think we're lucky to be picked eighth."
Through and through
The indicators fly in like insects from The Nest. At no time in Big Ten history has the league overflowed with such quality depth. Projections are futile when any of 23 games to be waged between these eight teams could, at this juncture, reasonably be deemed a tossup.
You don't think so? Get your mind right. You only need to study Minnesota, the supposed eighth-place team.
Last year, the Gopher losses in an 8-4 season came by scores of 20-17 to Wisconsin in overtime, 20-17 on a late Ohio State field goal, 33-28 to Purdue and 24-20 to Oregon in the Sun Bowl.
"If they hadn't missed a field goal at the end of regulation (Dan Nystrom made his next 12 in a row), the Gophers would have gone to the Rose Bowl instead of us," Badger coach Barry Alvarez said.
That, of course, was last season.
"We'll be better this year," Mason said. "Last year, I said we'd go from a loser to a winner. Now we've lost key players at key positions (quarterback Billy Cockerham, star rusher Thomas Hamner and MVP safety Tyrone Carter), but again we should be improved. We have a lot of people back."
The Minnesota defense, three years removed from Jim Wacker's indifference, that held Heisman winner Ron Dayne to 80 yards and limited 12 opponents to 196 points. Said Mason: "I made a study of losing programs. Losers play lousy defense."
The Gophers rocked Penn State in Beaver Stadium, igniting a three-game November tailspin. Said Mason: "That was the turning point for us."
His program posted more victories than any Minnesota football team since 1967, seemingly unaffected by massive upheaval emanating from basketball, where the ouster of coach Clem Haskins led to still-unfilled administrative firings, self-imposed sanctions and devastating player defections.
This isn't a effort to "sell" Minnesota to Illinoisans who could care less about the distant northerners.
The point is to remind that seven Big Ten squads finished in the Top 25 last year ... that the erstwhile Big Two and Little Eight had eight teams share in league championships in the 1990s ... and Minnesota once again presents a dangerous football operation.
Illinois could and should be improved as well, and yet it faces the possibility of entering October with two conference losses (Michigan on Sept. 23, at Minnesota on Sept. 30).
Joe Paterno wasn't puffing smoke when he called on 51 seasons of coaching experience to proclaim: "As I study tape and look over the opponents on our schedule, never at any time in my life have I run up against better coaches (and opponents)."
Just seven short of bypassing Bear Bryant's record of 323 coaching victories, Paterno said: "We'll be competitive but we'll have to struggle to win games. Seven wins won't be easy with this team and the schedule we have to play."
That's life in 2000. The cycle mysteriously swung away from Notre Dame and the Pac-10 toward the Big Ten, creating a mathematical certainly that the dreams of some strong, healthy members must go unrealized.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette.