When Minnesota meets Alabama on Dec. 31 in the Music City Bowl, the Gophers are going to try to unleash their powerful running game against Alabama's staunch defense.
Alabama is led by a defense that ranks first in the nation in pass defense, 26th against the run and second in overall defense. The unit is only allowing 235.9 yards per game. Senior Cornelius Wortham leads the team with 86 tackles, while senior defensive end Todd Bates has recorded 5.5 of the team's 25 sacks.
RBs Laurence Maroney and Marion Barber form one of the best RB duos in the nation, but running against Alabama will not be easy. The Crimson Tide is both quick and nasty and the Minnesota offensive line will have to be on top of its game if Maroney and Barber are going to unleash 100-yard games.
C Greg Eslinger and RT Rian Melander are the keys to the offensive line; both were first-team All-Big Ten selections by the coaches and the media.
The Gophers are a group that likes to muscle and maul their opponents, and that's just the kind of game they are going to have to play against Alabama. The Crimson Tide defenders — led by Wortham and Bates — are going to have to avoid getting engulfed by the big Minnesota linemen.
If they can avoid that, it would seem that Alabama would have a good chance of coming away with the postseason win.
BEST ATTRIBUTE: The Gophers are an explosive offensive team that can light up the scoreboard. Led by outstanding RBs Laurence Maroney and Marion Barber, the Gophers can eat up huge chunks of yardage with their running game. QB Bryan Cupito has a couple of big-play weapons in WRs Jared Ellerson and Ernie Wheelwright. If the Gophers can get off to a good start and put their end-of-season problems behind them, Music City Bowl fans may see the team that averaged 31.0 ppg this year.
NEEDS IMPROVEMENT: The defense has generally been soft all season. The Gophers give up 408.7 yards a game, a figure that ranks 86th in the nation. Minnesota lacks strength at the point of attack, a characteristic that figured prominently as the Gophers faltered in the second half of the season.
GAME OF THE YEAR: Iowa 29, Minnesota 27 (Nov. 13) — Though they lost their regular-season finale to their rivals, the Gophers appeared to wake up from their second-half slumber. Minnesota trailed 23-10 at the half, but came all the way back and had a chance to win at the end, but Rhys Lloyd's 51-yard FG attempt with 28 seconds to play went wide left.
MATCHUP TO WATCH: WR Ernie Wheelwright vs. DB Anthony Madison — While most observers will concentrate on the matchup between the Gopher running backs and the Alabama front seven, Wheelwright and the Gopher passing game could be huge. Wheelwright caught 30 passes for 654 yards and eight touchdowns, while Madison led the Tide with three interceptions and is solid in coverage.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Any time you have another game, especially when things haven't gone exactly the way you want, you anticipate that you would like to do some things — I have a few things in mind." — Minnesota coach Glen Mason, on how he will prepare his team for the Music City Bowl against Alabama.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
BOWL AT A GLANCE: Minnesota vs. Alabama, Music City Bowl, Nashville, Dec. 31. It will be strength (Minnesota averages 255.1 rushing yards per game) against strength (Alabama yields an average of just 119.4 yards on the ground).
PLAYERS TO WATCH: RBs Laurence Maroney and Marion Barber — The Gophers run the football extremely well, thanks to this duo and an outstanding offensive line led by C Greg Eslinger, LT Rian Melander and guard Mark Setterstrom. Maroney has run for 1,243 yards and averages 6.6 yards per carry, while Barber has gained 1,082 yards and averages 5.6 ypc.
LB Kyle McKenzie — The Gopher defense lacks overall size, but that does not apply to the 6-1, 230 pound McKenzie. He leads the team with 75 tackles, including seven TFL and 2.5 sacks.
PRO POTENTIAL: C Greg Eslinger — He was a finalist for the Rimington Award and should be a great blocker at the next level. While he is a junior, he is at the top of his game and is well thought of by NFL scouts. He is a 286-pound technician who knows the nuances of his position.
ROSTER REPORT: The Gophers should be healthy as they prepare for the postseason.