It's safe to say that before the season, no one thought Kansas and Minnesota would meet in Wednesday's Insight Bowl.
Kansas was coming off an Orange Bowl appearance, and with star quarterback Todd Reesing and a nice group of receivers back in the fold, another big season was expected from the Jayhawks. As for Minnesota, the Golden Gophers were 1-11 in 2007, and most observers predicted another woeful season in '08.
WHEN: 6 p.m. Dec. 31.
WHERE: Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe, Ariz.
TV: NFL Network (Paul Burmeister will do play-by-play, with Mike Mayock as the analyst).
THE LINE: Kansas by 9.
RECORD VS. BOWL TEAMS: Kansas 2-5, Minnesota 2-4.
NCAA SCHEDULE STRENGTH: Kansas T-9th, Minnesota 80th.
BCS RANKINGS: N/A for either team.
COACHES: Kansas − Mark Mangino (2-1 in bowls); Minnesota − Tim Brewster (first bowl).
WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: Good question. Minnesota comes in having lost four in a row. Kansas comes in having lost four of its past six. Still, Mayock is a solid analyst who will provide good insight (get it – insight) on the draft.
KEY STATS: Kansas is eighth nationally in passing offense, averaging 302.3 yards per game - with 28 TD passes. Minnesota is 89th in pass defense, allowing 231.6 yards per game.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Kansas WRs Dezmon Briscoe and Kerry Meier are overshadowed in the receiver-heavy Big 12, but they're as productive a duo as you'll find. They combined for 165 catches and 19 touchdown receptions, and they should get ample opportunities against a Minnesota secondary that looks as if it will be overmatched.
Instead, Kansas underachieved and Minnesota overachieved. The result is a meeting in Tempe, Ariz.
Kansas started 5-1, with the loss by three points at USF on a last-play field goal. But then came the second half of the season, when KU played five bowl teams. The Jayhawks lost to four of them and salvaged a winning season only by shocking rival Missouri – the Big 12 North champ – in the regular-season finale.
Minnesota started 4-0 and 7-1, and there were visions of a New Year's Day bowl. Instead, the schedule toughened and the Golden Gophers fell apart down the stretch. Minnesota lost its last four regular-season games by a combined 143-55. Included in the swoon was a 23-point home loss to the worst Michigan team in history.
The late-season problems dropped the Golden Gophers down the Big Ten bowl pecking order. Still, while the season could have been better, going from 1-11 to 7-5 deserves kudos.
Kansas, on the other hand, likely will wonder "what could have been?" even if it wins the bowl and finishes 8-5. Defensive improvement – the Jayhawks surrendered an average of 45 points per game in their five losses – will be the top priority in the offseason.
Who has the edge?
Kansas run offense vs. Minnesota run defense
Kansas' rushing attack has been inconsistent. The Jayhawks have 22 rushing touchdowns, but nine of those came in two games. Tailback Jake Sharp came up big in midseason but was ineffective both early and late. The Golden Gophers had been OK against the run until late in the season. Minnesota gave up 790 yards and seven rushing TDs in the last four regular-season games.
Kansas pass offense vs. Minnesota pass defense KU needs to make some hay here. Quarterback Todd Reesing had another good season, throwing for 3,575 yards and 28 touchdowns. He had seven 300-yard games and easily could have another against Minnesota. He has solid receivers; Dezmon Briscoe had six 100-yard games and Kerry Meier had four. Minnesota struggled to stop the pass, and the bad news for the Golden Gophers is that KU has the best passing attack they will have seen this season. But Kansas has had trouble protecting Reesing and Minnesota has a good pass rush, headed by Willie VanDeSteeg.
Minnesota run offense vs. Kansas run defense Minnesota ran the ball effectively early in the season – against weaker opponents. That running attack was stymied in midseason, then shut down at the end of the season. Minnesota ran for a total of 257 yards and one touchdown in the final four regular-season games. Freshman tailback DeLeon Eskridge is the leading rusher, but he hasn't scored in the final five regular-season games. QB Adam Weber is a running threat. Kansas' run defense is nothing special.
Minnesota pass offense vs. Kansas pass defense Weber threw 24 TD passes last season, but that number dropped to 14 this season. In the second half of the season, Weber threw six TD passes and six picks. WR Eric Decker, who was banged up late in the season, expects to be 100 percent for the bowl. Decker has 76 catches this season and will find a lot of room against a porous KU secondary. While Minnesota is bad against the pass, KU has been atrocious (275.5 yards per game, 26 TD passes allowed). The question, of course, is whether that's because the secondary is bad or because the Big 12 is filled with great offenses. While Weber is mobile, the line still has had trouble with pass protection. Kansas defensive end Jake Laptad and linebacker James Holt could have some success with their pass rushes.
Kansas special teams vs. Minnesota special teams Kansas kicker Jacob Branstetter is 9-for-12 on field-goal attempts, but with a long of just 34 yards. Punter Alonso Rojas is OK and also could be called on to attempt long field goals. Daymond Patterson is a good punt returner; the rest of the specials teams are adequate. Minnesota kicker Joel Monroe is 12-for-16 on field-goal attempts with a long of 42 yards. Justin Kucek is a good punter. Troy Stoudermire is a big-time kick returner and Marcus Sherels is solid on punt returns. The coverage units have been good.
Kansas coaches vs. Minnesota coaches Kansas is in a bowl in back-to-back seasons for the first time in school history. Mark Mangino has done a nice job rebuilding the Jayhawks. Minnesota was 1-11 last season in coach Tim Brewster's first season, but the Golden Gophers rebounded this season. The defense still has issues, but coordinator Ted Roof – who had been Duke's head coach – deserves credit for getting the unit to play much better this season. This is Minnesota's seventh bowl appearance this decade.
X-factor: Which Minnesota offense will show up – the one that was productive early in the season or the one that stunk it up late in the season? Kansas is going to score, which means this could get ugly unless the Golden Gophers rediscover ways to get into the end zone.
Kansas will win if: If Reesing has his "normal" game, the offense will be fine. Defensively, KU needs to make sure Minnesota doesn't do much damage on the ground.
Minnesota will win if: The Golden Gophers need to find a way to slow KU's passing game. If they can get consistent pressure on Reesing, their chances for a win increase greatly. Kansas' defense isn't that good, so perhaps Minnesota's offense can break out of its funk. It would help if Eskridge is productive.
The pick Mike Huguenin: Kansas 35, Minnesota 24.
Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.