The preseason goal for the Minnesota State football is to win a national championship.
With many returning players or few, the Mavericks' bar annually gets set pretty high.
Some seasons, a run at the national championship is more likely than others. Next season, more pieces seem to be in place with plenty of returning players as 35 of the 44 players on the two-deep roster are underclassmen. The Mavericks seemed to overachieve by reaching the national quarterfinals this season; next season, that will be more of an expectation.
Both quarterbacks return. Sophomore Ryan Schlichte and freshman J.D. Ekowa struggled at times, especially in the passing game, completing just 53.4 percent of their throws. However, they combined for 2,449 yards passing with 34 touchdowns and eight interceptions. You can likely expect the platoon system again next season, and an improvement in the completion percentage will go a long way toward making the passing game as dangerous as the ground attack, which for the first time amassed more than 4,000 yards.
Speaking of which, Nate Gunn was the team's MVP this season, setting a program record with 1,550 yards rushing in only 11 games. That was, in large part, because the first defender to hit him rarely made the tackle. When he was out with a knee injury, the offense lacked some swagger, and his presence should allow the quarterbacks to take advantage of some play-action opportunities.
Of course, nothing happens without a strong offensive line, which dominated most of the games. Sam Schrauth, Evan Heim, Erik Nelson, Boyd Draeger and Hunter Toppel each started games this season and, along with the entire tight end group, should provide the running room and pass protection it takes to win at a high level.
Evan Perrizo was one of the top pass-rushers in program history, but the other three starters, as well as three backups, will be back in the defensive line. Brendan Chrystal started every game at outside linebacker, but again, two other starters are back and three backups are underclassmen.
The area of concern might be the defensive backfield. Safeties Corey Brent and Jerry Nash III were two of the team's leaders, and cornerback Larry Moore limited some talented receivers. The younger players will have to fill those voids, both on the field and off.
But while the pieces are in place for success, there are no guarantees. As coach Todd Hoffner said last week, talent wins games, but talent doesn't win without hard work. And a few breaks.
The Mavericks were remarkably healthy this season as 13 of 22 starters played in every game and six others missed two or fewer games. You can't always count on that, though an increased emphasis on offseason training seems to have played a role in good health this season.
Minnesota State will likely open next season rated somewhere around the top five in national polls. There will be plenty of talent on the roster, and the experience of reaching the national quarterfinals should boost the players' confidence and motivate them to keep working hard during the next seven months.
When they get back together in August, expectations will be very high, both inside the team and the fan base.
Chad Courrier is a Free Press staff writer. To contact him, call 507-344-6353, e-mail at email@example.com or follow his Twitter feed @ChadCourrier.