The 2017 Gophers football team won its three nonconference games by a combined 75 points. The 2018 Gophers won their three nonconference games by a combined 78 points.
The 2017 Gophers began their Big Ten schedule with a loss at home to Maryland, the first negative indicator of what would become an embarrassing season: a 2-7 conference record with many of the players who had gone 5-4 in the conference and won a bowl game the year before.
The 2018 Gophers begin their Big Ten schedule at Maryland, in what coach P.J. Fleck is calling Year 1 of his program. That’s because he decided his false-start first season should be renamed Year 0.
Using Fleck’s time-space continuum, Saturday’s game at Maryland should be considered Game 1 of his program. This is where Fleck should begin proving himself.
People close to the program said Fleck’s problem last year was that his message was bound to offend his veteran players. He is selling what he calls a new “culture.” The 22-year-olds who had just won a bowl game and felt loyal to Tracy Claeys were not going to be appreciative of the sentiment, but Fleck’s message seems to be working on younger Gophers.
This is a good time to begin judging Fleck’s ability to compete in the Big Ten, because he will not be able to use conference quality as an excuse if this year’s team regresses.
Last weekend, seven Big Ten teams lost to unranked nonconference opponents. That had never happened before. Maryland, which had beaten Texas and Bowling Green, somehow lost to Temple by 21 points, while providing a reminder that Temple fields a football team.
Fleck’s salesmanship is perfectly designed to woo teenagers and offend adults who have been asked to believe in Gophers coaches ever since Lou Holtz promised to spend the rest of his life in Dinkytown.
At his news conference on Tuesday, Fleck spoke of “culture,” and his team’s impressive grades, and building a program from scratch, even if the program won nine games the year before he arrived.
He’s easy to satirize, but there is this:
Fleck’s freshmen are impressive. Zack Annexstad is a true freshman walk-on quarterback who can run an offense with poise. Freshman running back Bryce Williams is a player, as is the freshman with whom he’ll probably share time, Mohamed Ibrahim. Freshman receiver Rashod Bateman is an athletic complement to Tyler Johnson, the star from Minneapolis North High.
Fleck is starting six freshmen, and they are playing on merit. Perhaps more impressive is that he has salvaged relationships with two talented sophomores who could have transferred.
Seth Green lost the quarterback competition to two freshmen. Instead of transferring, he stuck around and now is a dynamic wildcat quarterback.
Cornerback Antoine Winfield Jr. was rightly offended by the lack of due process when the University of Minnesota accused players of sexual assault in 2016. Fleck kept Winfield in the program and now has one of the country’s best players winning games for him.
Winfield’s father was one of the most impressive Vikings I’ve covered in 28 years, but even he couldn’t run over a half-dozen opponents on a punt return, like his son.
However Fleck’s shtick is received by a public made skeptical by the past 50 years of Gopher football, what matters now is how he connects with talented kids.
Whether this is Year 0, 1, 2 or Pi, Fleck appears to be winning friends and influencing people within an important demographic: athletic, football-loving 18-year-olds.