(WCCO)- The Minnesota Golden Gophers are one of just 12 teams in the FBS that remains undefeated through six weeks of the season. They earned their first ranking in the AP Poll this week, checking in at number 20 following a 34-7 demolition of Nebraska last Saturday.
Despite the unblemished record, there hasn’t been a lot of talk about PJ Fleck’s team to this point. That is partly due, as CBS Sports Network analyst Houston Nutt points out, to the schedule, which saw the Gophers play South Dakota State, Fresno State and Georgia Southern to open the year. The Jackrabbits, while a strong FCS squad, are still an FCS team. Fresno State (2-3) has dropped off since an 11-win season last year. And Georgia Southern (2-3) is much of the same. The Gophers beat those teams by a combined 13 points.
So, in a sense, it’s understandable that the Gophers have been under-the-radar after tight-roping through that opening slate. But, Nutt points out, that early schedule, even including the game against Purdue, helped them grow.
“They played South Dakota State, Fresno State, Georgia Southern and Purdue to start, and they have had a chance to grow in the season,” said Nutt. “But you have to give credit to them. They beat Nebraska, Illinois and Purdue the last three weeks, and I expect them to keep it going against Rutgers.”
The opponent this week, the Rutgers Scarlet Knights, won’t provide the type of test that will garner any more attention for the Gophers. Rutgers fired their coach, Chris Ash, two weeks ago, and they are coming off a game in which their quarterback had just one passing yard on 13 attempts. Yes, that did actually happen. After the trip to New Jersey this week, the Gophers face Penn State, Iowa and Wisconsin in three out of four weeks to close the season. That is where the real tests will come, and we’ll see how Fleck’s team stacks up.
But, that all being said, one thing has jumped out at Nutt so far: the receivers.
“Keep an eye on a couple of these wideouts they have, they are fun to watch,” said Nutt. “They have a way of getting open, and they have been creating separation.”
The trio of Tyler Johnson, Rashod Bateman and Chris Autman-Bell have combined for 69 receptions for 1,227 yards and 13 touchdowns this season. All three have averaged over 13 yards per catch, with Bateman and Autman-Bell both over 19 yards per catch. They’re a potent group, especially when combined with the Gophers’ running game, which ranks among the top 50 in the country, averaging 186.2 yards per game behind Rodney Smith, who ranks in the top 10 in rushing yards.
The ground game is the catalyst for the offense, averaging 46 attempts and four yards per carry. It was dominant against Nebraska, rolling up 322 yards and four touchdowns on the Cornhuskers. That ground attack will be tested once those games against Penn State and Wisconsin roll around. Those two teams are currently first and third in run defense. For Nutt, that is the part of the schedule that he is most excited to see the Gophers play.
“I’m anxious to see, as we get into the later part of the year, competition is going to rise up a little bit. Let’s see if Minnesota continues to rise,” said Nutt.
The Gophers, meanwhile, will look to continue their eight-game winning streak (dating back to last season) when they kick off in New Jersey against the Scarlet Knights this Saturday at 2:30 p.m. Central Time.