Minnesota caught the nation’s attention in 2019 with an 11-2 season that ended with a 31-24 victory over #9 Auburn in the Outback Bowl on New Years’ Day. Impressive, right?
The Gophers were impressive at the end of the season, but the start of the season was something completely different. A fourth quarter South Dakota State fumble set up Minnesota’s game winning touchdown, averting an embarrassing upset loss to a 1-AA foe. A week later, Minnesota tied Fresno State on a 4th and 13 last minute touchdown pass to force overtime; the Gophers would eventually prevail 38-35 in double overtime. Against Georgia Southern, the Gophers scored with 13 seconds left to avert an upset for the third straight week. But in the second half against Nebraska, the Gophers stopped futzing around and dropped the hammer on the Big Red. After a couple of blowout victories against Rutgers and Maryland from the bottom of the Big Ten’s east division, the Gophers stunned #5 Penn State at home to launch themselves into the top ten.
Junior quarterback Tanner Morgan (6’2” 215 lbs.) is now the unquestioned leader of the Gophers’ powerful offense, though curiously, I don’t believe P.J. Fleck and his staff believed that until last season. As a freshman, Morgan backed up Zack Annexstad (6’3” 220 lbs.) until Annexstad’s season-ending injury suffered against the Huskers. Morgan finally got his shot and immediately started a comeback push in Lincoln. Morgan would lead the Gophers to a 4-2 record the rest of 2018, but still found himself as the backup until Annexstad suffered a season-ending foot injury at the start of preseason practice. But now that Morgan earned second-team All Big Ten honors last season, it’s safe to say that Morgan is the guy after completing 66% of his passes for 3,253 yards, 30 touchdowns and seven interceptions last season. Compare that Annexstad’s 52%, nine touchdown and seven interception season in 2018, and the quarterback debate in Minneapolis is over.
Junior running back Mohammed Ibrahim (5’10” 210 lbs.) regains his starting role with the graduation of Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks. When Smith and Brooks were injured in 2018, Ibrahim took over and rushed for 1,160 yards as a freshman. Last year as a backup, Ibrahim rushed for 604 yards and seven touchdowns. Sophomore Bryce Williams (6’0” 205 lbs.) rushed for 526 yards, backing up Ibrahim in 2018. Williams played sparingly last season with just 17 carries in a redshirt season. True freshman Ky Thomas (5’11” 205 lbs.) arrives as the Kansas high school player of the year.
Until junior Rashod Bateman announced that he was planning to sit out the 2020 season over COVID-19 concerns, the Gophers receiver corps looked well stocked. Now Minnesota has to replace both Tyler Johnson and Bateman, who combined for 146 catches, 2,537 yards and 24 touchdown catches last season. That leaves juniors Chris Autman-Bell (6’1” 215 lbs.) and Demetrius Douglas (6’0” 195 lbs.) as the only returning contributors at receiver; Autman-Bell caught 28 passes for 371 yards and five touchdowns last season, while Douglas caught 14 passes for 157 yards. Minnesota’s tight ends might become more involved in the passing game in 2020. Junior tight end Jake Paulson (6’5” 270 lbs.) and sophomore Brevyn Spann-Ford (6’7” 270 lbs.) combined to catch eight passes last season.
Did you notice the size of those tight ends? Well, then check out the size of the five returning starters on the Minnesota offensive line. Senior center Conner Olson (6’5” 305 lbs.) is the munchkin of the bunch, who’s started every game in his Gopher career. Sophomore right guard Curtis Dunlap (6’5” 345 lbs.) and junior left guard Blaise Andries (6’6” 325 lbs.) also return as entire-career starters; Andreis earned third team all-Big Ten honors last season. Senior left tackle Sam Schlueter (6’6” 325 lbs.) has started 27 games at tackle (and tight end!) during his career. And then there is junior right tackle Daniel Faalele, who is officially listed at 6’9” tall and weighs 400 pounds.
Only four starters return for a Gopher defense that, quite honestly, caught a break last season in not facing an established returning starting quarterback until playing Iowa in November. In fact, they played 5 teams with first-year starting quarterbacks and six (!!!) other teams having to play their backups --- and (not coincidentally) won every one of those games. Iowa and Wisconsin’s returing starters at quarterback came out victorious against Minnesota. (Anybody believe Nebraska put their best effort on the field in Minneapolis last season?)
Only one starter returns in the front seven: senior defensive tackle Micah Drew-Treadway (6’4” 315 lbs.), who spent his first two years of his college career at Notre Dame. Junior middle linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin (6’3” 245 lbs.) did start seven games as a backup with 42 tackles. P.J. Fleck’s recruiting and development will be put to the test, as there are a lot of holes up front on the Minnesota defense at the start of this season.
Junior safety Jordan Howden (5’11” 200 lbs.) is the Gophers’ leading returning tackler with 57 last year. Senior cornerbacks Benjamin St-Juste (6’3” 200 lbs.) and Coney Durr (5’10” 200 lbs.) each broke up ten passes last year and have 45 and 33 tackles respectively last season. The Gophers will definitely miss last year’s leading tackler, All-American Antoine Winfield, who’s off to the NFL.
It’s easy to roll your eyes at P.J. Fleck’s “Row the Boat” mantra, but his results at Western Michigan and Minnesota speak for themselves. His players definitely have bought into the metaphor, which means you disparage Fleck at your own peril. That being said, this year’s Gophers is missing several of the oars that got them to a New Year’s Day bowl game, which should also serve to temper expectations for the next football season --- whenever that happens.
What happens when Nebraska and Minnesota battle for the Broken Chair?
This poll is closed
Same thing as last year... the boat runs all over the Big Red.
It’s closer, but the Gophers prevail again.
Nebraska reclaims the chair in a close Quadrangle of Hate matchup.
Nebraska blows up the Gophers like Carl Spackler blew up his golf course.