P.J. Fleck opened his address at the recent Big Ten Media Days by noting that the Gophers went from being the youngest team in college football last season to the second-youngest team this season.
Please, not more of that.
The 2019 season isn’t about “racing to maturity” or measuring growth in slow drips. The Gophers can’t be labeled a veteran team just yet, but they are also not a bunch of unproven newbies.
Year 3 of Fleck’s tenure shifts to a new focus — becoming a legitimate contender in the Big Ten West. There’s no reason why the Gophers can’t reach that mile marker.
The offense should be balanced and high-scoring behind one of the best wide receiver corps in the Big Ten, the return of Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks in the backfield and two quarterbacks who started six games last season.
A defense that performed a dramatic about-face under Joe Rossi the final four games last season welcomes back playmaker Antoine Winfield Jr.
Momentum and confidence are gold currency for programs in rebuilding mode. The Gophers stuffed their pockets with it in closing out 2018. Three wins in their final four games. Reclaiming Paul Bunyan’s Axe for the first time in forever. A bowl-game blowout. Tyler Johnson staying in school.
Momentum, all of it.
The roster might be crammed with underclassmen, but it isn’t devoid of star power. Johnson, Winfield, Smith and Brooks, Carter Coughlin, Rashod Bateman, Seth Green, Mohamed Ibrahim, Thomas Barber, Daniel Faalele.
That’s a pretty good starting point.
The schedule works in their favor, too. Seven home games, including five in Big Ten play. Their three crossover opponents from the Big Ten’s Big Brother division are Rutgers, Maryland and Penn State — the final two at home.
Compare that to the Wisconsin Badgers, who drew Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State in crossover games.
Factoring returning talent and schedule, anything less than eight wins for the Gophers will be disappointing.
The West Division is wide open, more so than in previous years. No team looks substantially better than the rest. Every team except Illinois realistically could contend in November.
Offense will be the Gophers’ hallmark after significant improvement in Fleck’s second season. The Gophers ranked 64th nationally in scoring (28.9 points per game) and 86th in total offense (379.6 yards per game), which doesn’t seem overly impressive until you compare that production to Fleck’s inaugural season: 109th in scoring (22.1 ppg) and 122nd in total offense (308.5 ypg).
Assuming good health, another big leap seems inevitable. Smith, Brooks and Ibrahim have combined for 6,001 yards rushing in their careers. Glen Mason often noted that Big Ten teams need a “pair and a spare” at running back. The Gophers have three starting-caliber backs.
Johnson’s decision to put off the NFL for one more year gives the Gophers one of the best receivers in college football. Bateman is a star in the making. Green’s versatility as a wildcat quarterback provides the offense a unique and effective dimension.
Quarterbacks Tanner Morgan and Zack Annexstad don’t have extensive résumés, but they have résumés now. Regardless of who wins the job, the Gophers don’t have an unknown at the most important position.
Maybe the biggest development of the offseason was Kirk Ciarrocca’s decision to turn down an offer from West Virginia to remain as offensive coordinator. Continuity in scheme and coaching are vital as Fleck builds his program.
Coaches often preach about process, but results represent tangible signs of progress. The Gophers made strides that could be measured last season. The final month felt like a light bulb flicking on. Winning the Axe wasn’t a fluke.
“You start to show people where we’re headed because everybody wants proof,” Fleck said.
The Gophers remain in a prove-it phase, which makes their follow-up act particularly important. If you haven’t heard, attendance is a problem, not just here but across all of college football. Winning creates buzz, which spurs interest, which drives attendance. The Gophers need to provide more proof, as Fleck describes it.
Last season was a youth movement. This season is about moving up. Expectations deserve to be higher.