There is a fair-sized group of Gophers football loyalists, even if those folks haven’t come close to filling TCF Bank Stadium, second smallest in the Big Ten, for any of five home games to this point.
The loyalists were even more pleased with the hiring of Phillip John Fleck to replace Tracy Claeys than they were when Tim Brewster replaced Glen Mason a decade ago – and that was pleased indeed.
The tradition here is to get lathered up with optimism when the new coach arrives, and then blame whatever immediate problems occur on the previous coach.
Mason was 6-7 in his final season of 2006, and Brewster was 1-11 in 2007, and the Gophers loyalists seemed to agree that it was Mason’s fault.
Claeys had finished out 2015 as the interim for the resigned Jerry Kill, then received the job and went 9-4 in 2016. The reasons for his firing were three-fold, and in this order:
1-Attendance was poor. 2-He was a cerebral, stoic giant of a man, not a jolly, self-promoting giant of a man. 3-There was an incident involving a coed and a number of players, followed by suspensions that led to a brief players’ boycott, and Claeys offered support of the players' protest.
Fleck arrived after an unbeaten regular season (13-0) at Western Michigan, and then a competitive loss to Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl. The loyalists quickly bought into Fleck’s high energy and the non-stop buzz words and phrases.
From the day Fleck was hired, the loyalists have been downgrading the nine wins for Claeys as having been the result of an easy schedule. There even have been suggestions that, in fact, if Claeys was any kind of a coach, the Gophers would have won at Penn State (rather than losing in OT), and they would have won at Nebraska, and finished 11-2.
Along with Claeys, the other culprit named most often in the Gophers’ failure to win more than nine games was Mitch Leidner, the fifth-year senior quarterback. The majority opinion among the loyalists seemed to be they had tired of Mitch and were ready for him to move aside.
What we're hearing now is one big advantage for Claeys in 2016 was that he had a senior leader at quarterback. That's because the quarterback play has been poor, and the Gophers are 4-4 -- three non-conference cupcakes and 1-4 in the Big Ten.
The Gophers would have to run a gauntlet of Michigan and Northwestern on the road, and Nebraska and Wisconsin at home, and then win a bowl game, to equal the raw numbers that Fleck inherited from Claeys.
It has been almost knee-slapping humor to observe the loyalists bad-mouthing a 9-win season for the Gophers, since there have been two of those since 1905: Mason’s 10-3 season in 2003 and Claeys’ only full season.
Now, we’re into realism, so it’s actually 1997 when nine victories became a reasonable goal. That’s when the regular season was raised from 11 to 12 games, at the same time bowl games were becoming more difficult to avoid than to reach.
Still, two seasons of nine or more wins in two decades, and Gophers fans are demeaning the 9-4 in defense of the new, loud coach -- you have to admit, that’s worth a laugh.
The 2016 Gophers did have an easy schedule through the 8-4 regular season. And, the 2017 Gophers have had an easy schedule for the first two-thirds of the season, with a 4-4 record.
I decided to take a look at the Jeff Sagarin ratings of these past two seasons. The Sagarin numbers do seem weird at times, but they come with objectivity and historical perspective. It should be remembered that Sagarin lumps both FBS and FCS together in a rating of 254 teams.
2016 Gophers (9-4): They were rated No. 25 in the final Sagarin. That was fifth among Big Ten teams. They had a strength of schedule rated 65th.
They had losses to Wisconsin (No. 9 in Sagarin), Penn State (No. 13), Iowa (No. 41) and Nebraska (No. 45). They had six victories vs. Power Five conference teams, including Washington State (No. 34), Northwestern (No. 35) and Maryland (No. 88). They also had victories against three of the four lowest-ranked Power Five teams in the Sagarin: Illinois (111), Purdue (126) and Rutgers (150).
2017 Gophers (4-4): They are rated No. 57 in the current Sagarin, ninth in the Big Ten and one spot ahead of Nebraska. They are rated 77th in strength of schedule.
The Gophers have two victories against Power Five teams: Oregon State (No. 115) and Illinois (107). Those are two of the three lowest-rated Power Five teams, ahead of only Kansas (150).
They have lost Power Five games vs. Maryland (63), Purdue (47), Michigan State (26) and Iowa (27).
I think even Iowans would be surprised to see this season’s Hawkeyes with a better Sagarin than the 8-5 team from 2016. That’s probably based on a victory over Iowa State that seemed like not much in September and has turned significant.
The Gophers’ strength of schedule will go up significantly over the month of games that remain: Michigan (22), Nebraska (58), Northwestern (30) and Wisconsin (11).
The bottom line at the moment is this: Claeys faced an easy schedule (65th) and took advantage. Fleck has faced the weak part of his schedule (77th) and has not.