Psst, attention please. We interrupt your State Fair corn dog consumption and hand-wringing over the Vikings offensive line to deliver a piece of news that somehow has been largely ignored: The Gophers football team opens its season Thursday night.
Where is the buzz and sense of anticipation for a new season? Gophers talk has been unusually quiet around town, lost in a sea of euphoria over the Vikings prospects at a Super Bowl run.
Outside of diehards, interest in Gophers football seems subdued. The school anticipates attendance in the low 40,000s for the opener against New Mexico State, a figure that includes more than 5,000 ticket giveaways to incoming freshmen. The inability of a Big Ten program to sell out a 50,000-seat stadium for a season opener is disheartening to those of us who love college football.
What makes college football the greatest sport on Earth are its unique traditions, the pageantry of Saturday afternoons on campus, intense rivalries, marching bands, cool stadiums, fun fight songs, wacky postgame call-in shows, the whole works.
The Gophers still are trying to create that deep emotional attachment in a crowded sports market that is coming down with Purple Fever.
How do they get there? Win. That’s the most simplistic answer. Winning solves a lot of problems.
Gophers fans don’t need a history lesson on the program’s lack of success. That horse has been kicked enough. But the effects of that history are still being felt, along with Norwood Teague’s disastrous attempt at a money grab. The former AD couldn’t have read the room any worse with his scholarship seating plan back in 2014. It’s a tossup as to which turned off fans more: the collapse vs. Michigan in 2003 or Teague’s tone-deaf price hike on tickets.
In firing Tracy Claeys and then hiring P.J. Fleck, Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle said he wanted to “shake the tree.” Coyle needs a lot of victories to fall out of that tree in order to lure back long-time loyalists who bolted in protest of scholarship seating.
That process will require time and patience. Fleck has upgraded his talent in recruiting, but the roster is bloated with young players and that’s always an uneasy road.
Freshmen comprise 53 percent of the roster, which is the highest number in college football. Underclassmen make up 70 percent of the team. The Gophers are the only program nationally that has nothing but freshmen at quarterback. Five freshmen are listed as starters on the depth chart, including true freshman walk-on quarterback Zack Annexstad.
The Gophers are younger than ducklings, which makes it virtually impossible to lay out grand expectations right now. Fleck has mentioned his team’s youth roughly one million times, and we get the point. Being that young in a Power Five conference is never ideal, but this was Fleck’s plan from Day 1.
So what should observers expect? And how should we judge this season? Wins and losses remain the ultimate barometer, of course, but there’s more to it than that.
How does Annexstad develop and can he prove that he’s a long-term answer at quarterback? Can freshmen who look talented on paper transfer that to games? Will the team be more competitive against the Big Ten’s best? And will more people say at the end of the season, “Yeah, this thing is headed in the right direction”?
The final two games last season left a bad taste and likely contributed to muffled anticipation for this season. The Gophers weren’t remotely competitive in losing to Northwestern and Wisconsin by a combined score of 70-0, the first time since 1950 that the Gophers were shut out in back-to-back games.
The roster underwent a significant overhaul with an influx of youngsters who bring more upside and will fill important roles right away. Venerable fifth-year tailback Rodney Smith must feel like a grandpa when he looks around the locker room.
Fleck called his debut season Year Zero, but that’s merely semantics. Year 2 starts Thursday with a bunch of fresh faces and intriguing unknowns. Count me among those interested to see how this all looks.