With a handful of players taking advantage of an extra year of eligibility (given by the NCAA due to the COVID-19 Pandemic that drastically affected the 2020 season) P.J. Fleck leads one of the oldest and most experienced football teams in the nation. Minnesota returns the reigning Big Ten RB of the year and his offensive line should even be better this year. Does Minnesota really have a chance to win the Big Ten West? Below I give 10 reasons why I think they will. I will also add my 3 biggest worries that could come true and hinder their goal to become Big Ten West Champions.
- Mo Ibrahim will have a Heisman Type Season.
In just seven games, Mo ran for 1,076 yards with 15 touchdowns. What makes those stats more impressive is that all seven games were against Big Ten opponents. Ibrahim currently stands ninth place in all-time rushing yards at the U with 2,840 yards. There is no reason why I think Mo won’t pass the 4,000-yard mark and become one of the best running backs in Minnesota history. His offensive line was pretty good last year and they all return, with the addition of Daniel Faalele who opted out last season and Curtis Dunlap coming back from injury. Not much of a stretch to think Mo can have a Heisman Type Season leading the Gophers to a Big Ten West Title. I think he has a great year.
- Defensive line goes from being a weakness to a big strength.
No doubt this was a big weakness last year as opponents had no problem running the ball against Minnesota (Defense allowed 201 yards a game). Minnesota attacked the transfer portal and landed a stud in Clemson DT Nyles Pinckney and a solid pass rusher in North Carolina State Val Martin. One big takeaway the media has been consistent on this fall camp is that this DL group has given the OL group fits during media availability at practice. Micah Dew-Treadway comes back for his 7th year and Boye Mafe has all the tools to be a 1st round draft pick. I also think Esezi Otomewo is primed to have a great season and I also love the motor on DeAngelo Carter, who is one of my favorite players on the team. To win games, you have to control the line of scrimmage and this group is poised to win games for Minnesota. I expect the Gophers to have their best defensive line in years this upcoming season and they should cause plenty of disruption.
- Tanner Morgan has another 2019 season.
Tough to judge Morgan’s season last year. He loses Tyler Johnson to the NFL, Rashod Bateman opts out then in and then out again. Morgan basically gets zero time to break in a new offensive coordinator’s playbook and develop a relationship with coach Sanford, and on top of all of this was the COVID-19 pandemic. I believe Tanner’s 2019 season was not a fluke and I think he can replicate it to lead the Gophers to a Big Ten West title.
- Minnesota’s Special Teams Wins Games.
Incoming Transfer and former All Mac First Team kicker Matthew Trickett has been as good as advertised so far and gives Minnesota stability at the kicking position for the first time since Emmitt Carpenter left the Gophers in 2018. Punter Mark Crawford has shined as well at camp and Minnesota should be in a position where their special teams steals games from opponents. This has the potential to be Fleck’s best special teams so far in his time at Minnesota (although that isn’t saying much).
- Wide Receiver Core steps up to give Tanner Morgan dangerous weapons.
The good news with Chris Autman-Bell’s injury is that it isn’t very serious as Fleck says he could possibly play versus Ohio State. Daniel Jackson shined last year as a true freshman hauling in 12 catches for 167 yards and more will be expected of him this year. The Gophers got an excellent playmaker in Texas A&M transfer Dylan Wright. Wright can spread the field with his speed and has been making plays daily at camp according to Fleck. Brady Boyd is also having a great camp and could see time as a true freshman. Tanner Morgan has weapons around him, health will obviously be a factor. This is arguably the biggest question mark for the Gophers team leading into the season.
- Brevyn Spann-Ford triples his career receptions in one season.
Can you believe Brevyn has only 5 catches in the last 3 years at the U? I’m going on record now that he will triple that number this season as Sanford has clearly made an effort involving the Tight Ends in the passing game this camp. To help out Mo in the running game and the young WR core, the tight ends will step up this year and be a factor in the red zone.
- The best offensive line in the Big Ten will reside in the Twin Cities.
P.J. Fleck has a great problem on his hands and his answer is going to be rotating 6 offensive linemen from series to series. Gophers have great depth in the trenches. Blaise Andries can play anywhere, Connor Olson is one of the best guards in the conference, and they get back studs Curtis Dunlap and big man Daniel Faalele. The young WR’s might need a little extra time to get open and this offensive line should be able to give them that. Don’t be surprised if you hear 3 or 4 names from this group get called on draft day next year.
- Jack Gibbens has an All-Big Ten Season and Mariano Sori-Marin is the most improved player on defense.
Jack comes in as a graduate transfer from Abilene Christian where he led the team last year with 49 total tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss. Gibbens gives the Gophers experience and leadership where they desperately need it the most from last year. Mariano’s season last year wasn’t the greatest nor was it consistent. While nobody questions his IQ and effort, it was clear he was trying too hard last year and needed to simplify his game. The addition of Gibbens should help him with that. The linebacker core will get back Braelen Oliver who will see extended time as well and has become an excellent blitzing threat for Minnesota.
- Floyd and Paul coming home.
While I listed these games in the top 3 of the toughest games for the Gophers this year, that doesn’t mean they are guaranteed losses. While Iowa had a strong 2020 season, this year could be the year I see Minnesota winning in Iowa City. Iowa loses 3 starters up front on offense and they are replacing three of the top four tacklers on defense. While their secondary should be solid, their front seven could be weak against the run. Minnesota finishes their regular season against Wisconsin at home. While they are Big Ten West favorites, you can bet Minnesota will be motivated to win this game as they had every chance to win in Madison last year. To win the Big Ten West, all roads go through Wisconsin and Iowa.
- Tyler Nubin becomes Winfield Jr 2.0 and Corey Durr becomes a lockdown CB.
In my opinion, Minnesota will go against 4 of the top 5 wide receivers in the Big Ten this year. Chris Olave (Ohio State), Garrett Wilson (Ohio State), Ty Fryfogle (Indiana), and David Bell (Purdue). What’s scary is that each wide receiver has a good QB throwing them the ball as well. For Minnesota to win the Big Ten, they need Nubin to dominate the open ground in the secondary and Durr to lockdown his counterpart. Bottom line, I think Minnesota’s secondary will be the biggest X factor this season along with the wide receivers.
My 3 biggest worries coming true and the Gophers don’t win the Big Ten West
Below are my biggest worries heading into this season. As I stated above, I believe these 3 things will be a huge factor in how many wins or loses the Gophers will have this season.
- The passing game doesn’t bail out the running game.
The biggest worry for every defensive coordinator facing Minnesota will be stopping the run game of Minnesota. It doesn’t matter if it’s inside zone, outside zone, or RPO. Every DC is going to focus on Mo, which puts extra pressure on the passing game. The only way to combat opponents stacking the box is by completing passes. I think the Gophers can run against anybody, but I don’t have that same confidence in the passing game… Especially with Chris Autumn-Bell dealing with an injury. Tanner Morgan should have time to throw the ball, the question is if his wide receivers can get open and catch it.
- Special Teams continue to be special for all the wrong reasons.
P.J. Fleck has definitely improved the Minnesota Football Program in almost every way but there is one thing in my opinion that hasn’t improved, and that is the special teams. (Keep in mind, he inherited Emmit Carpenter when he came here in 2018.) The kicking and kick returner positions seem to be a revolving door the last 3 years and it truly has been a big factor in games. The extra point miss in overtime during the Maryland game last year still makes my blood boil. If there is any coach in the hot seat this year, it has to be special teams coordinator Rob Wenger and it is well deserved.
- Minnesota secondary gets exposed.
No doubt Minnesota has talent in the secondary, especially in freshman stud Justin Walley. They just don’t have a ton of experience. Coney Durr is a lock at CB but the replacement for Benjamin St. Juste is not solidified, although you could pencil in Terell Smith. Outside of those two at CB, you don’t have much experience behind them. Safeties Tyler Nubin and Jordan Howden had their ups and downs last year and the coaches are relying on them to solidify the backend of the defense. With the talent this group is facing this year, this has the potential to get ugly quickly. It was no secret Fleck tried his hardest to add more experience in the secondary via transfer portal this off-season with no luck.