After eight games last season, the Minnesota Vikings were 5-3, though they had lost the last three. Fans were still holding on to hope, though the season seemed to be slipping away, with the starting quarterback, running back and just about all the offensive linemen injured.
This season, the Vikings are just one game better but have won four straight, getting a bye at the mid-point of the season. But the outlook seems so much better, even though the starting quarterback and running back are no longer playing because of injury.
Why are you more confident now than a year ago, even though Vikings' fans are trained to expect the worst?
At every level of football, the success of a team can almost always be traced to the offensive and defensive lines. Mankato West, which plays for the section championship tonight at Todnem Field, wouldn't still be playing without top-notch play at the line of scrimmage, allowing a young quarterback to mature and protecting an inexperienced secondary.
Anybody who watched Saturday's game at Blakeslee Stadium could see the difference between the undefeated teams was line play. Minnesota State's offensive line opened running lanes and protected the quarterback, reminiscent of the front five from 2011 through 2014, and the defensive line, after taking a couple of possessions to get things figured out, completely stuffed the run and made six sacks, not including several other big shots on the quarterback.
The Mavericks are back in the national-championship discussion, being voted No. 1 in a national poll, because of the big boys.
The Vikings' offensive line, while still a work in progress, has been markedly better than last season. The Vikings are rushing for 120.0 yards per game, getting 4.0 yards per carry, and opponents have only 10 sacks on the quarterback.
Last season, the Vikings rushed for 75.3 yards per game and 3.2 yards per carry, and opponents spent a lot of time on the backfield, making 38 sacks.
Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers have solidified the tackle positions, and rookie Pat Elflein has moved in at center, starting all eight games and showing unusual athleticism and a nasty attitude for his position. Joe Berger has made a smooth transition from center to guard, and the trio of Nick Easton/Jeremiah Sirles/Danny Isidora has taken care of left guard.
The defensive line has been just as good, led by end Everson Griffen, who is unblockable at some point in every game. Griffen has at least one sack in all eight games, and if teams choose to double-team him, that's one less receiver in the pattern or one less blocker up front.
You might not notice Danielle Hunter as much on the other end, but that's likely because other teams are paying more attention. Linval Joseph is among the best nose tackles, and Tom Johnson and Shamar Stephen help to plug the middle.
Whether it's high school, college or professional, the spotlight shines more on the backs and receivers, pass rushers and interceptors, but success comes from the offensive and defensive lines. If you're strong upfront, you're probably going to be successful.
Maybe 6-2 is only one game better than 5-3, but the difference in optimism is much greater.
Chad Courrier is a Free Press staff writer. To contact him, call 507-344-6353, e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow his Twitter feed @ChadCourrier.