This week's game will feature two coaches that are widely considered the only two viable candidates for the Big Ten's Coach of the Year award. One of those coaches, a two-time national champion, has lead his team to 21 Big Ten regular season games in a row, and is gunning for a league title and a playoff bid.
Why is Coach Kill getting such high praise? His Golden Gophers of Minnesota are 7-2, and are fresh off an absolute demolition of rival Iowa, 51-14. Minnesota was briefly in the AP Top 25, and with the conference's other title contenders still in front of them on the schedule, the Gophers still control their own destiny in their quest to win the West division and make the Big Ten title game. Not bad for a program that was losing to FCS squads a few years ago and one that lacks the talent of a Wisconsin or a Nebraska, let alone an Ohio State. Kill's teams have quietly beat expectations for a few years now, leading him to be well represented among an ESPN coaches poll for the most underrated coach in the sport.
This is Kill's seventh season at the FBS level, since coming up from Southern Illinois. Kill spent 2008-2010 at Northern Illinois, then went over to take over Minnesota after the failed Tim Brewster experiment.
Let's take a closer look at exactly how those seasons finished.
2008: Finished 6-7, with no wins against teams that finished with a winning record. His best win was a 16-13 victory, at home, against a 6-6 BGSU team that didn't get to go to a bowl game. Lost 17-10 to Louisiana Tech in the Independence Bowl. Finished 0-6 against teams that finished with winning records.
2009: Finished 7-6, losing badly to South Florida in the International Bowl. Gets some bonus points for beating a 5-7 Purdue team on the road, but then loses all of them for promptly losing the next week, at home, to Idaho. Also, did not beat a team with a winning record, finishing 0-5 against those squads.
2010: By far, Kill's best season. NIU beat two teams with winning records (an 8-5 Temple team, and an 8-5 Toledo team), and also managed to beat another Big Ten squad, knocking off a crummy Minnesota team. Finished 2-2 on the year against teams with winning records. Lost the MAC Championship game to Miami (OH), and then Kill left to go to Minnesota. The team beat Fresno State in the Humanitarian Bowl without Jerry Kill.
Record against teams that finished above .500 over his three year tenure? 2-13. Sure, Northern Illinois was in bad shape before Kill arrived, and the program has a small budget, even compared to some of their MAC peers. Still, only two wins over even average teams in three seasons? That 10-3 season was great for NIU, but hardly something to throw a parade over. The Huskies have enjoyed more success since then.
Okay, but what about Kill's move to the Big Ten?
2011: Finished 3-9, although that was probably to be expected given the low talent level left after the Tim Brewster administration. Kill did manage to upset two Big Ten teams, both with 7-6 records, and both at home. This team also lost to New Mexico State, and to FCS North Dakota State, which sort of cancels out upsetting Illinois. Finished 2-6 against teams that finished above .500
2012: Finished 6-7, losing to Texas Tech in the Texas Bowl. They did manage to beat a decent Syracuse team at home, but failed to record any other Big Ten win of consequence. Played a lot of teams close, but finished 1-6 against teams that finished with records above .500
2013: A bit of a breakthrough year for the Gophers, as they finish 8-5, losing to Syracuse in a close Texas bowl. They pick up their best win of the Jerry Kill era, a 43-23 win over a nine-win Nebraska squad, and finish 3-5 against teams that end with winning records.
2014: Features the other best win of the Kill era, last week's 51-14 stomping of an Iowa team that will probably go 8-4 or 7-5. The Gophers are 7-2 right now, but with Ohio State, Wisconsin and Nebraska all still on the schedule, matching last year's 8-5 record would probably be considered to be a win for the program. Outside of Iowa, Minnesota's only other win over a team that currently has a winning record is 5-4 Middle Tennessee.
Prior to 2014, that means that Jerry Kill's teams are a whopping 8-30 against teams that finished above .500 for the year. Only one of those wins game against a team that won more than eight games, (Nebraska, 2013), and every single one of them happened at home. A Jerry Kill coached team has never beaten an above .500 squad on the road. He's also never won a bowl game.
That isn't anything especially worth celebrating. Minnesota has beaten a bunch of bad teams and one okay team (and also lost to a bad team), and will probably go to the equivalent of a Texas Bowl again this season, and potentially lose. After the Brewster era, that's fine, but even at a place like Minnesota, it's not groundbreaking. It wasn't that long ago that Minnesota fired Glen Mason for doing pretty much that every season.
Minnesota signed the No. 11 ranked recruiting class in the Big Ten last year, behind Indiana and Northwestern. This year, with 16 commitments, they're second to last, barely beating out the Hoosiers, who have 12. It's not like Kill has dramatically raised the talent level at Minnesota or institutionally changed their ability to compete in the future. He's taken a team of average FBS level players, beaten a bunch of below average teams in a historically poor Big Ten, and had them playing at a slightly above average level. That's perfectly fine. It isn't worth putting somebody on a trophy over though.
If that merits being Coach of the Year, then the Big Ten's already low on the field expectations are even lower than we thought. If the Buckeyes win out, the league should do something they haven't done since 1979. Name Ohio State's coach the coach of the year.