Minnesota (WCCO)- The second year of the P.J. Fleck regime yielded a return to a bowl game (Quick Lane) and the continuation of the program’s bowl winning streak. Now, entering Year 3, Fleck’s squad is hoping to make another leap, but the Big Ten media has lowered expectations.
In Cleveland.com’s annual Big Ten preseason media poll, the Gophers were picked to finish sixth in the Big Ten West ahead of only Illinois in the division. Granted, the writers did admit that the West division appears to be wide open, but the hype heading into the year is all about Scott Frost and the Nebraska Cornhuskers or the expectations for a bounce back season from Wisconsin.
Still, optimism isn’t hard to find for Fleck and Gophers fans. For one, the team was extremely young last season with freshman and sophomores playing key roles particularly on the offensive side of the ball. All of that talent is back. Secondly, the West, by all accounts is wide open. And with the star potential that the Gophers have back on offense, they have a shot at making moves in the division.
“Minnesota has a shot. [Tanner] Morgan at quarterback and the running backs that they have led by Mohamed Ibrahim, they can be a factor,” said CBS Sports college football analyst Randy Cross. “But, part of it is going to be the coaching, part of it is the culture and part of it is just going to be the part that you’re supposed to do the most about in recruiting and that is athleticism.”
In addition to Morgan and Ibrahim, the Gophers return most of their offensive line including the massive Daniel Faalele (6’9″ 400 pounds) and Curtis Dunlap Jr. (6’5″ 370). Add to that the return of star receiver Tyler Johnson (78 receptions 1,169 yards 12 TD), along with Rashod Bateman and Chris Autman-Bell and you have a trio of receivers for Morgan to work with as the Gophers go up against some tough Big Ten defenses.
The road to possible contention for a division title will come, on the road. This season the Gophers draw Purdue (9/28), Iowa (11/16) and Northwestern (11/23) all on the road. Throw in a home game against an expected conference title contender in Penn State (11/9) and it can be tough to see too much improvement in the way of wins and losses despite the experience. In fact, Cross thinks that the Cornhuskers are the team primed to make a move in the division.
“I would think given the P.J. Fleck influence this would be a snap up year where you threaten double-digit wins but the Big Ten is pretty feisty,” said Cross. “They are on the right side of it in the West, but you’re not going to have two teams make big moves and I look at Nebraska as being the team that makes the big move out of that side.”
The Gophers and Cornhuskers meet October 12th at TCF Bank Stadium with the game time yet to be announced. The season opener comes on Friday, August 30 at 8 p.m. CT against South Dakota State. For the rest of the schedule, take a look below.
8/30 vs. South Dakota State, 8:00 p.m. CT
9/7 @ Fresno State, 9:30 p.m. CT
9/14 vs. Georgia Southern, 2:30 p.m. CT
9/28 @ Purdue, TBA
10/5 vs. Illinois, TBA
10/12 vs. Nebraska, TBA
10/19 @ Rutgers, TBA
10/26 vs. Maryland, TBA
11/9 vs. Penn State, TBA
11/16 @ Iowa, TBA
11/23 @ Northwestern, TBA
11/30 vs. Wisconsin, TBA