The Gophers football team generated a little early buzz with a 3-0 nonconference start (as usual) and then fell flat in the Big Ten opening loss to Maryland (as usual).

Given that outcome and the news that arguably their two most important players — Rodney Smith and Antoine Winfield Jr. — are now out for the season, it’s hard to imagine the Gophers making a big leap in the standings beyond P.J. Fleck’s 5-7 debut last year.

That said, this is still a very meaningful year. So today’s question is this: What is the biggest thing we need to learn this season to feel like there is significant momentum for Minnesota heading into Year 3 under Fleck?

First take: Michael Rand

As much as I’d love to say it’s the development of quarterback Zack Annexstad, I’m not sure that’s the right answer given that the program has other options at that spot.

I’d say what’s more important is continued evidence that the Gophers are developing young, athletically gifted players on both sides of the ball — and particularly on defense.

That will lend credence to the notion of Fleck as a stout recruiter and the idea that as more of these players mature the overall product will look better.

Chip Scoggins: The development of young players is, was and will remain the No. 1 objective this season. Recruit and develop better talent. Nothing about that changed with the Maryland loss. But I would put finding an answer at quarterback at the top of any list.

Fleck has to solve that conundrum if his program is going to take the necessary steps. It’s hard to win in the Big Ten with mediocre (at best) quarterback play. Constantly changing quarterbacks and starting over at that position is not conducive for building a program.

Rand: I agree that solving the QB problem is a must, but I don’t think it’s critical that they know going into next season that Annexstad is “the guy.” All they need to know is that they have a quarterback for Year 3 that they believe is going to be an above-average Big Ten starter — whether that’s Annexstad or someone else.

I’d also say that it’s important — though less important than the overall development of talent — to at least reach six wins and go to a bowl game. The standards for postseason play in college football are exceedingly low, but failing to reach that benchmark in Year 2 would at least be an image problem for Fleck.

Scoggins: I agree that people always want to see tangible signs of progress. Getting to six wins and playing in a bowl game would represent a positive step beyond talking about player development, which would help with perception.

The die-hards are always going to be sold, but the Gophers are trying to generate more widespread interest and excitement in the program.

If you’ve been to TCF Bank Stadium on a gameday and seen attendance, it’s obvious they have a lot of work to do. Casual observers are still in wait-and-see mode with this program.

 

Rand: There’s always the next half-century!

 

Final word: Scoggins

Spoken like a true hardened Minnesota sports observer, Michael. The rest of the season will reveal how much progress has been made.

More Rand: startribune.com/RandBall

More North score: startribune.com/NorthScore