Now the real season starts.
Minnesota ran through four nonconference foes and now stands at 4-0 — two wins away from bowl eligibility — for the first time since 2008.
The Gophers will open their eight-game Big Ten schedule Saturday in Iowa City, Iowa, against the Hawkeyes.
The Big Ten is struggling this year, as nine of the 12 teams lost at least a game in nonconference play, but for Minnesota, conference play will be a step up in competition. It will likely be known soon if the Gophers are a contender or a pretender.
Right now, even Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill seems unsure.
“We still have a lot of work to do to be a good football team,” Kill said. “It’s a big step going to Iowa City.”
That it is, and there’s going to be an extra 100 pounds on the plane this time around, which might make travel a bit more difficult.
The Gophers will take Floyd of Rosedale, the 98.3-pound bronze pig given to the winner of the Minnesota-Iowa rivalry, to Kinnick Stadium with hopes of hauling it back to Minneapolis after the game.
Fans and players took great pride in Minnesota’s wins over Iowa in both 2010 and 2011 — the Gophers’ premier wins during 3-9 seasons. Minnesota hasn’t beaten Iowa in three-straight years since 1998-2000.
“I want to go win this pig more than anything. This is a big rivalry,” said tight end John Rabe. “It’ll be fun. The crowd will be ready to go. It’ll be a fun environment down there.”
The Hawkeyes have limped to a 2-2 start, with both losses coming at home, but they are still six-point favorites.
“They look just like Iowa always looks like,” Kill said. “Big, strong, physical, come downhill, hit you in the mouth. Play good defense.”
They might look like that, but they haven’t played like it this season.
The Hawkeyes have been wildly inconsistent throughout their nonconference schedule, and their offense lacks explosiveness.
Iowa’s James Vandenberg was one of the Big Ten’s better passers in 2011, but he’s only thrown one touchdown in four games this season. Wide receiver Keenan Davis, expected to be a top threat in the passing game, has been kept out of the end zone and hasn’t recorded a 100-yard game yet this year.
The Hawkeyes’ only real weapon happened by accident.
Running back Mark Weisman started at fullback the first two games before an injury forced him into the starting role. In two games as a starter, he’s rushed for 330 yards and six touchdowns.
Gophers defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman recognized Iowa’s strong running game and said he’ll be ready to shut it down.
“In the summer … I’ve been doing drills to really enhance myself against the run,” he said, “so I’m going to have to take that as a challenge this week and see what I can do against the run and Iowa.”
Even with Weisman’s emergence, the Hawkeyes’ scoring average of 20.5 points ranks 107th nationally.
Gophers starting right guard Caleb Bak said he’s never been 4-0 in his career, much less 5-0.
“We’ve got to keep it going,” he said. “We love Floyd. We love keeping him around. We’re hoping it stays that way.”