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Zulgad: Pick me up: P.J. Fleck has ignored the Gophers’ past and has program on verge of something special

Willie Taggart had barely heard the words “you’re fired” on Sunday when speculation began that Florida State was going to make a run at P.J. Fleck. That’s what happens when a football coach comes to Minnesota and has the type of success that Fleck has achieved in three seasons.

It’s also why Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle was proactive in making sure Fleck wouldn’t  walk away at the end of the season. Fleck agreed to a seven-year contract extension on Tuesday that, pending approval of the board of regents, will begin next season at $4.6 million (an increase of $1 million), is scheduled to pay him $33 million and calls for a $10 million buyout if he leaves after this season. That buyout reportedly drops to $4.5 million next season and to $3 million in 2021 and 2022.

If the Gophers continue to ascend under Fleck in the coming years there almost certainly will be some big-time school that comes after him. But, for now, Minnesota sports fans can dial back their fear that Fleck is going to become the next Lou Holtz.

That means those same fans can now focus on something that remains extremely difficult for many of us to comprehend. That is the potential that the Gophers football program could go from being a nice success story to a Top 10 team.

The 38-year-old Fleck got this contract extension because he has taken the Gophers from 5-7 overall and 2-7 in the Big Ten in his first season, to 7-6 and 3-6 last season, to 8-0 and 5-0 this year with four games remaining. The 13th-ranked Gophers have won 10 in a row under Fleck, including a Quick Lane Bowl victory over Georgia Tech to end last season, and are 12-2 in their past 14. They have not been 8-0 since 1941 and were last 5-0 in Big Ten play in 1961. The Gophers were 17th in the first College Football Playoff ranking that came out Tuesday.

The skeptics will point out that the Gophers looked shaky in nonconference play and have taken advantage of playing in the weak Big Ten West. The Gophers’ biggest margin of victory in nonconference  was a 7-point win over South Dakota State and that was followed by three-point victories over Fresno State (in double overtime) and Georgia Southern. The  Gophers’ perfect record in Big Ten play has included victories over Purdue, Illinois, Nebraska, Rutgers and Maryland. Illinois is the only team in that group that has an overall record above .500.

The comeback to that is that the Gophers haven’t just beaten up on their Big Ten opponents, they have dismantled them. A seven-point win at Purdue was followed by a 23-point victory over Illinois, a 27-point win over Nebraska, a 35-point victory at Rutgers and a 42-point win over Maryland. That type of domination — the average margin of victory is 26.8 points — can’t be dismissed.

The Gophers’ next opportunity to prove just how much things have changed will come Saturday morning when they play host to fifth-ranked Penn State. It’s the Gophers’ biggest game since 17th-ranked Minnesota (6-0 overall, 2-0 Big Ten) faced No. 20 Michigan (4-2, 1-1) on a Friday night in the Metrodome in October 2003.

Coach Glen Mason’s team had its sights set on the Rose Bowl and led 28-7 entering the third quarter before falling apart. The Wolverines scored 31 points in the fourth quarter for a 38-35 victory. The Gophers went 10-3 overall and 5-3 in the Big Ten that season but that didn’t get them anywhere near Pasadena.

There have been more Gophers heartbreaks since — and there were a few before — but the point has been that it always seems the other shoe drops on this program. Only now there is a chance that isn’t going to happen. The Gophers have a two-game lead on Iowa and Wisconsin in the Big Ten West and are on track to play the Big Ten East champion in the conference title game on Dec. 7 in Indianapolis.

The Gophers have four regular-season games remaining. After Penn State, they will play at Iowa and Northwestern before facing Wisconsin at TCF Bank Stadium. The Wildcats (1-7, 0-6) are awful, the Hawkeyes and Badgers can be beaten. Penn State is the toughest test and if the Gophers’ high-powered offense can get past the Nittany Lions’ strong defense there is a good chance that at the very least the Gophers will be going to the Rose Bowl for the first time since Jan. 1, 1962.

This is at the same time exciting and mind-boggling. It’s the type of thing that simply doesn’t happen to this program. That appears to have changed with Fleck in charge and, make no mistake, that doesn’t frighten him in the least.

As for the rest of us. You might want to check back late Saturday afternoon.





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