The fact the Gophers closed last season with three wins in their final four games, including one at Wisconsin and another over Georgia Tech in the Quick Lane Bowl, did little to change the perception of P.J. Fleck’s team in the minds of 34 sportswriters who participated in the annual Big Ten predictions done last month by Cleveland.com.
The Gophers were predicted to finish next to last in the Big Ten West with 100 votes ahead of only Illinois (34 votes). Nebraska (198 points, 14 first-place votes); Iowa (194.5, 14); Wisconsin (172.5, 4); Northwestern (142.5, 1); and Purdue (110.5) were picked to finish ahead of the Gophers. Despite the overall lack of confidence, one voter picked the Gophers to finish first and predicted they would lose to Ohio State in the Big Ten title game.
That might be a bit on the optimistic side, but picking the Gophers to finish in sixth place is overly pessimistic and likely misguided. That’s right Gophers fans you read that right: As Minnesota gets set to open the season on Thursday night against South Dakota State at TCF Bank Stadium there are real reasons for optimism. That means there is pressure on Fleck for the first time since he left Western Michigan to take the Gophers job in 2017, and there’s pressure to sell tickets in a stadium that has had far too many empty seats in recent years.
It will help that the Gophers’ schedule is missing Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan. Instead, Minnesota’s opponents from the Big Ten East will include Maryland and Rutgers. This isn’t necessarily an easy schedule — it includes ranked teams in Penn State, Nebraska, Iowa and Wisconsin — but it definitely has to be considered favorable.
The Gophers went 5-7 overall and 2-7 in the conference in Fleck’s first season to finish sixth in the Big Ten West. Last season, Minnesota was 7-6 overall and 3-6 in the conference to tie for fifth in the West. That wasn’t impressive but the transformation that took place after an embarrassing 55-31 loss at Illinois changed everything.
Fleck fired defensive coordinator Robb Smith — the Gophers were giving up more than 43 points per game in Big Ten play — and replaced him on an interim basis with defensive line coach Joe Rossi. Minnesota did not give up more than 24 points in a game after the move as Rossi earned the permanent job. The most impressive win was a 37-15 victory over the Badgers, marking the first time the Gophers had won in Madison since 1994 and the first time they had beaten the Badgers since 2003.
Rossi stabilized a defense that had looked like it was incapable of tackling at one point, and the return of safety Antoine Winfield Jr., after having season-ending foot surgery last October should give that side of the ball a substantial boost provided he can stay healthy. Defensive end/linebacker Carter Coughlin, one of seven returning starters on defense, also should provide headaches for opposing offenses.
But if this team is going to make significant progress it’s going be because of the offense installed by Fleck and run by coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca. Sophomore quarterback Tanner Morgan won the job in the preseason when Zack Annexstad suffered a foot injury in early August. Morgan went 4-2 as a starter last season, throwing for 1,401 yards, nine touchdowns, six interceptions and a 58.6 completion percentage.
Morgan will have no lack of weapons at his disposal. The wide receiver combination of Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman is among the best in the Big Ten. Johnson was a first-team All-Big Ten selection last season with 78 receptions for 1,169 yards and 12 touchdowns. Bateman had 51 receptions for 704 yards and six touchdowns, setting a record for a Gophers freshman.
That means there will have to be a focus on the Gophers’ passing game, but the issue is the run game can’t be ignored. Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks — both coming off knee injuries — will return as will the guy who proved to be an extremely capable replacement, Mo Ibrahim. Ibrahim had 1,160 yards rushing on 202 carries with nine touchdowns. That made him the second-leading freshman rusher in college football in 2018. Brooks was still rehabbing when camp began.
Both the run and pass game should get support from an offensive line that will be anchored by mammoth right tackle Daniel Faalele (6-foot-9, 400 pounds). The one question mark was at left tackle but, for now, junior Sam Schlueter has won that job.
The Gophers will close the season with a difficult November run that includes Penn State, Iowa, Northwestern and Wisconsin. The good news is that should be a stretch worth watching.