USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.

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Jerry Kill and his coaching staff have successfully returned Minnesota to annual bowl contention, achieving in three years what only one other coach – Glen Mason – had done since 1968: win eight or more games in a single season.

That the Golden Gophers reached that mark last fall despite Kill's health-related absence speaks to his rock-solid crew of assistants, for one, but also the strength and mental fortitude rapidly instilled in this roster. Kill coached the first five games of last season, leading the Gophers to a 4-1 start, and returned for a bowl loss to Syracuse; in the interim, Minnesota was led by defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys, who piloted the Gophers through a four-game midseason winning streak and a return to the postseason.

But this program still lags in one crucial area: Minnesota can't control its borders. This doesn't necessarily mean in recruiting, where Kill and his staff recently inked three of the state's top five recruits, per Rivals.com, including a top-100 recruit in the Gophers' Minneapolis backyard. February's class ranked eighth in the Big Ten; the previous two classes finished last.

Border control is about making noise in and around the states bracketing Minnesota, topping rivalry foes and creating momentum on the field and off – the sort that can carry over to recruiting, in fact.

The Gophers have four rivalry opponents: Iowa, Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan. One could also suggest the Gophers have created a nice series with Nebraska, its newfound Big Ten cohort to the south. These are the games that do more than decide Minnesota's bowl hopes – in large part, they define Minnesota's season.

The Gophers are 3-10 against this group since Kill's arrival in 2011. Wisconsin continues to ravage the Gophers, though last season's loss was the narrowest in the series since 2009 – a loss that will live in infamy. Michigan has lost three games to Minnesota since 1968.

It's the next step, basically: Minnesota has asserted itself once, increasing its win total in each of the last two seasons, but now must do so again. Until then, the Gophers won't rise about peskiness.

LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:

In Minnesota's corner stand this helpful schedule – four winnable games in September, Iowa at home – this solid and overlooked coaching staff and the knowledge that comes with spending another offseason in Kill's system. Again, it all comes down to Iowa: Win that game, get to six or more wins. Reaching six wins with a loss at home to the Hawkeyes is going to be tough, if doable.

2013 RECAP:

In a nutshell: Minnesota weathered the storm to become just the program's fourth team since 1968 to win eight games in a season, joining Mason's squads in 1999, 2002 and 2003. That the Gophers did so despite the trials and tribulations associated with Kill's absence speaks volumes. After coming out flat at Michigan on Oct. 5 – not long after Kill announced his leave – the Gophers rolled off four in a row in Big Ten play, topping Northwestern, Nebraska, Indiana and Penn State to move to 8-2 in advance of closing matchups with Wisconsin and Michigan State. Yeah, Minnesota lost to Wisconsin; this is what Minnesota does. But more than anything, last season created a baseline, a standard for success: From this point forward, the Gophers should be disappointed in any year that ends outside of the postseason.

High point: Beating Nebraska and Penn State in a three-week span.

Low point: Another loss to Wisconsin. The Badgers' winning streak in the series now includes all the fingers on both of your hands.

Tidbit: Minnesota has won nine or more games only once in the last 108 seasons. That's just silly. Not that a lack of nine-win seasons has prevented Minnesota from claiming seven national titles: 1904, 1934, 1935, 1936, 1940, 1941 and 1960.

Tidbit (trend edition): This is a good trend: Minnesota has increased its own scoring output and cut down on its scoring defense in each of Kill's three seasons. The Gophers scored 221 points in 2011, 287 in 2012 and 334 in 2013. Defensively, Minnesota allowed 380 points in 2011, 321 in 2012 and 289 in 2013.

ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:

Lou Holtz-coached teams

1. 1988 Notre Dame
2. 1977 Arkansas
3. 1989 Notre Dame
4. 1992 Notre Dame
5. 1993 Notre Dame

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

Offense: The Gophers are going to absolutely punish teams on the ground, at least matching and perhaps exceeding last year's run-game output, but it's crucial that sophomore quarterback Mitch Leidner (619 yards passing, 407 rushing) make offseason strides as a thrower. It's the missing ingredient: Minnesota will still score points – the 334 a season ago marked a program-best since 2006 – but was too predictable against high-end opposition, as seen in late-season losses to Michigan State and Wisconsin. I don't think Leidner is ready to take that next step, though he remains a very viable and dangerous option in the Gophers' ground attack. But here's one thing to consider: Leidner won't have to worry about looking over his shoulder, due to Phillip Nelson's departure, so that increased confidence and comfort level could manifest itself in improved pass-game production. I think Minnesota needs to be patient, to a degree, but look for Leidner to take on a larger role as a passer in this offense.

That will help take pressure off the running game, though I have no concerns that this portion of the offense will succeed with or without a sense of run-pass balance. It's a backfield paced by senior David Cobb (1,202 yards), one of the great surprises in last year's Big Ten – and a back who will no longer come in under the radar against conference competition. The Gophers also return junior Rodrick Williams (332 yards), a 245-pound battering ram, along with senior Donnell Kirkwood, who could produce in a pinch. There's also Leidner, of course, and I see the sophomore accounting for 600-plus yards and double-digit touchdowns as the full-time starter. But there must be a spot for redshirt freshman Berkley Edwards, a springtime sensation, and there's always the chance that four-star freshman Jeff Jones – the Gophers' top recruit in years – gains eligibility before the start of fall camp.

Minnesota's receiver corps is quiet, befitting the team's offensive imbalance, but I wonder if this group has what it takes to produce at a heightened clip if Leidner can deliver from inside the pocket. It's still a young receiver corps, basically: Isaac Fruechte (13 receptions for 154 yards) is the lone senior set for a major role, with junior KJ Maye, sophomores Drew Wolitarsky (15 for 259) and Donovahn Jones (10 for 157) and redshirt freshman Eric Carter rounding out the pre-fall rotation. What the Gophers do have, however, are a number of reliable targets in the intermediate game – hybrid tight ends such as sophomore Maxx Williams (25 for 417), senior Drew Goodger and redshirt freshman Nate Wozniak. Look for things to change dramatically at receiver during fall camp: Minnesota inked three very impressive freshmen at the position, with each very much in line for a shot at playing time right off the bat.

Defense: Perhaps no defense in college football will miss a single player more than Minnesota will miss Ra'Shede Hageman, whose senior-season totals – impressive, but not jaw-dropping – belied his enormous, trickle-down impact on the Gophers' entire attack. Moving forward, Minnesota can merely hope that this year's returning linemen – three starters, most of the reserves – can continue to produce without Hageman drawing attention; that's possible, but it's a tall task for this defense to handle. The biggest key will be quite literally filling Hageman's spot in the middle: Scott Ekpe should start on the nose after spending last season in a backup role, but it'll take Ekpe, fellow starter Cameron Botticelli (23 tackles, 5.5 for loss) and reserves Harold Legania and Demaris Peppers to recoup just a slice of the Hageman's impact. At end, the Gophers return senior Michael Amaefula and junior Theiren Cockran (30 tackles, 7.5 sacks); as much as any defender, Cockran needs to match last season's production. As one might expect, the line is going to take a step back.

But I think linebacker play will improve despite losing a pair of seniors on the outside. I view the lone returning starter, senior Damien Wilson (78 tackles), as a touch underrated in the Big Ten; he's not the league's best, but Wilson brings experience and solid consistency to the middle. It'll be two new full-time starters on the edges: De'Vondre Campbell (41 tackles) is ready for a breakthrough, in my mind, after dabbling in a starting job last fall, and one of sophomores Jack Lynn and Nick Rallis seems like a solid option on the strong side. But don't sleep on incoming transfer Cody Poock, the lone JUCO addition in February's class – he was added to the roster for a reason.

I really like this secondary despite the loss of cornerback Brock Vereen, the team's stopper as a senior. The depth is impressive at cornerback despite Vereen's departure: Eric Murray (52 tackles) is a keeper – a true all-league contender – and the Gophers won't struggle trotting out multiple-back sets with junior Briean Boddy-Calhoun, senior Derrick Wells, sophomore Jalen Myric and senior Marcus Jones. The only issue might be health, since Boddy-Calhoun and Wells are coming back from injuries, but that isn't an overwhelming concern. While it's still a touch unsettled, I imagine Boddy-Calhoun starting opposite Murray with Wells as the Gophers' nickel back. There will be no changes along the back end, where Minnesota returns safeties Antonio Johnson (69 tackles) and Cedric Thompson (79 tackles). This is a very solid group with the depth to defend spread-the-field offenses.

Special teams: The Gophers will have a redshirt freshman handling kicks and kickoffs, whether that's Andrew Harte or Ryan Santoso. Junior punter Peter Mortell returns, which is a good thing; Marcus Jones is back in the return game, which is even better. He's one of the very best in the Big Ten. While it's tough to project from year to year, you'd have to place Minnesota's special teams as a whole – kicking, returning, coverage – in the league's top three or four.

POSITION(S) TO WATCH:

Offensive line: Two personnel losses could lead to some changes up front. One was expected: Ed Olson has graduated, leaving left tackle in sophomore Ben Lauer's sole possession – the two split playing time a season ago. In addition to Olson, the Gophers will move forward without guard Caleb Bak, who was forced to cut short his college career due to ongoing concussion issues. While Lauer seems prepared to step into the permanent role on the blind side, Bak's departure will force the Gophers' hand along the interior. The best option, in my opinion, would be to move junior Josh Campion to right guard from right tackle; Campion is strong enough to handle the load, for one, and sophomore Jonah Pirsig could shine in the starting job on the outside. If the staff isn't totally secure in Pirsig's ability to take care of business, Minnesota could always stick with junior right guard Foster Bush, Bak's replacement a season ago. The Gophers also return left guard Zac Epping and center Tommy Olson, two seniors who set the tone for the entire front.

GAME(S) TO WATCH:

Northwestern: The Gophers are probably going 3-1 in non-conference play, likely dropping a road date at TCU. That'll leave this team needing at least three wins against the Big Ten, obviously, and little room for error in the push for a third postseason bid in a row. One fact above all else: Minnesota needs to take care of business at home. The Northwestern game stands out due to its turning-point feel; the Gophers could be 5-3 or 6-2 at the end of October with a win, and given the final-month slate – just ferociously nasty – this team might need to have six wins before the start of November.

SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:

In a nutshell: I do think Minnesota notches another bowl appearance, the program's third in a row, but I don't think the Gophers have enough in the tank to take another step forward in the win column – going from three wins to six wins to eight wins to nine-plus, which would be one heck of a trend. One reason is the schedule: Minnesota's set to take on the cream of the Big Ten's crop, outside of Michigan State, and might have the most intimidating November schedule – Iowa, Ohio State, Nebraska, Wisconsin – of any team in college football. The schedule alone is reason to think the Gophers top out at six or seven wins.

But there are other issues. One is quarterback play, and the passing game in particular. While the Gophers made hay last fall riding the ground attack, it's simply not tenable to expect continues success without a sense of offensive balance; Minnesota needs more through the air from Leidner, and I'm not sure if he's ready to deliver – at this point, at least. And even if Leidner is ahead of schedule, does Minnesota have the weapons at receiver to pressure opposing defensive backs? The offense won't be terrible, but it does need to add a stronger passing game to keep defense's honest. When it comes to Minnesota's own defense, it'll be nearly impossible to duplicate last year's play along the front seven, though there are two positives to consider: one, the potential at linebacker, and two, the depth and talent in the secondary.

Minnesota simply looks like a slightly above-average team, one without the talent or balance needed to threaten for eight or more wins in the Big Ten. But what the Gophers do have is coaching – yes, the Gophers certainly have coaching. As such, I waffled a bit on tossing Minnesota just outside the top half of the Big Ten; Kill has done it before and will do it again, so there's always the chance he leads this team beyond any preseason expectations. Good coaching has already taken Minnesota a long way.

Dream season: Minnesota again overcomes the odds, going 9-3 in the regular season – beating Wisconsin along the way – to finish second in the West Division.

Nightmare season: The Gophers slide back outside of bowl eligibility with a 4-8 finish.

UP NEXT:

Who's No. 66? This program hasn't suffered three losing seasons in a row since 1975-77.

RANKING EVERY FBS TEAM FOR 2014

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