The boat didn’t row very far in PJ Fleck’s first season at Minnesota. It wasn’t full of holes or at risk of sinking, but it just didn’t really have any destination in mind. The Golden Gophers went 5-7 and missed out on a bowl game for the first time since 2011. Except for service academies, it is pretty hard to win with a team completion percentage of 47.2 percent. The quarterback situation isn’t any clearer in 2018, but there are PJ Fleck recruits ready to take the reins of the offense, which could turn things around in Minneapolis.
The Gophers benefitted from avoiding Ohio State and Penn State in conference play and actually played very good defense last season. The offense, however, never came around. Panic isn’t even a word in Fleck’s dictionary, though. After all, Western Michigan went 1-11 in his first season in Kalamazoo and was in the national spotlight three years later. It is a process. Minnesota went 9-4 in 2016, but that was a little bit of a smoke and mirrors act. Regression was coming and it came.
Minnesota has virtually no chance to win the Big Ten, so we won’t waste words on those odds. A return to a bowl game seems like per DSI Sportsbook, where the Gophers have a win total of 6 with the over juiced at -125. BetOnline and its customers are less optimistic with 5.5 and the under at -115. 5Dimes has the same odds as DSI, with 6 and -125/-105. Keep in mind that these win total odds do not include conference championship games or bowl games.
|Date||Opponent||BangTheBook Line||Expected Wins|
|8/30 (Th)||New Mexico State||-14||.85|
|10/13||@ Ohio State||+30.5||0|
Expected Wins: 5.05
Outperforming the 9/11 TD/INT radio and 47.2 percent completion percentage of Conor Rhoda and Demry Croft shouldn’t be that difficult for the collection of quarterbacks for Minnesota. The problem is that none of them have any FBS experience at all. Redshirt freshmen Tanner Morgan, Jon Santaga, Samuel Pickering, and Casey O’Brien are all options. True freshman Zach Annexstad is another option, as he committed to Minnesota to join his brother Brock, who redshirted last season. Minnesota had JUCO transfer Victor Viramontes, but he left school in early June. Annexstad played at IMG Academy and probably has the most upside of all the options, but Morgan was part of Fleck’s first recruiting class and knows the system the best. Either way, there is a ton of uncertainty at this position. On the other hand, freshman Zach Terrell was a solid four-year starter for Western Michigan and finished as the all-time passing leader. His first season was Fleck’s first season in 2013, so the head coach has experience with this type of situation.
Minnesota will rely heavily on the ground game once again this season. The Gophers ran the ball 525 times against just 233 pass attempts last season. Rodney Smith was the bell cow back with 229 carries. He only had 4.3 yards per pop and fell short of 1,000 yards. He needs 1,005 yards this season to crack the program’s top three all-time and 1,128 to unseat Laurence Maroney for second. Redshirt freshman Mohamed Ibrahim could hawk some of those carries and keep Smith from moving up the program ranks. This is a really young offense. Fleck recruits dot the starting lines on the two-deep for the offensive line and the top two returning receivers are a junior and a sophomore. This is a group that only managed 22.1 points per game and 4.9 yards per play last season.
Fleck knew his team had a lot of deficiencies, hence the ground-and-pound offense and the slow tempo. That helped out a defense that had only five returning starters. The defense did struggle, though. The yards per carry went from 3.4 in Tracy Claeys’s final season to 4.9 in Fleck’s first season. Defensive coordinator Robb Smith has seven returning starters this time around, but this is a group that allowed 5.3 yards per carry in Big Ten play and also allowed opponents to complete 63.3 percent of their passes. Big Ten foes completed 66.7 percent of their tosses.
Thomas Barber will probably play on Sundays when his collegiate career is finished and three of the top four tacklers are back for Minnesota. There weren’t’ a lot of playmakers last season, as Minnesota only had eight interceptions. Takeaways were a hallmark of the Fleck years at WMU, as the team was +22 in turnover margin over his last three seasons. In other words, Minnesota better find some playmakers in a hurry. This side of the ball has more upperclassmen, but Fleck is going to work his recruits in.
Minnesota draws a decent Big Ten schedule this season. Ohio State is a surefire loss on October 13, but the Gophers avoid Michigan, Penn State, and Michigan State in crossover play. The non-conference schedule isn’t particularly daunting, especially since New Mexico State lost star quarterback Tyler Rogers. Minnesota’s physical style of football isn’t all that conducive to a late-September bye week, though.
Pick: Under 6 (-105, DSI or 5Dimes)
The schedule is pretty kind to Minnesota, but this is a team that could have serious quarterback questions for the majority of the season. That was the case last season and Minnesota did well to win five games. The rest of the Big Ten, specifically, the teams on Minnesota’s level, should all be better this season with new head coaches of their own or a second season with a new head coach. Fleck is a very good coach, a solid recruiter, and has a run-heavy, between the tackles, throwback sort of style that a lot of teams don’t play. It can give them an edge in the non-conference, but this looks like another tough season in Big Ten play. Plus, Minnesota’s ceiling for the regular season looks like 6-6, so there’s value on the under at reduced juice.
-END OF 2018 PREVIEW-
It seems only fitting that a man that lives by the mantra “Row the boat” wound up in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. PJ Fleck’s debut season as the head coach of the Minnesota Golden Gophers is coming up and he inherits a tough and tenacious team from Tracy Claeys and Jerry Kill. Claeys had one year at the helm for Minnesota, but he doubled, tripled, and even quadrupled down to the defend some of his players in a sexual assault investigation and supported a team-led boycott, much to the chagrin of the administration. It seems like that cost Claeys his job and Minnesota plucked Fleck from Western Michigan.
What Fleck did at Western Michigan to build up a long-suffering program was impressive. He has a better foundation of talent in place here and has a lot of guys that should respond to his motivational tactics. On the other hand, Fleck needs to make this group his, after Jerry Kill, who gets the most out of every single player, and Tracy Claeys, who staunchly supported his team, put their respective stamps on the program. After all, this is a nine-win team that Fleck takes over and a team that has a very juicy schedule without Ohio State or Penn State.
With that friendly schedule, the Golden Gophers have a season win total line of 7.5 with the under at -155 at 5Dimes Sportsbook. Keep in mind that bowl games and conference championship games are not included. This is only regular season wins.
|Date||Opponent||Projected Line||Expected Wins|
|9/9||@ Oregon State||+1||0.49|
|9/16||Middle Tennessee State||-4.5||0.63|
Total Expected Wins: 5.96
Call me a skeptic, but PJ Fleck had some of the best talent in the MAC to work with and that’s what made the offense so good. Zach Terrell was elite at taking care of the ball. Corey Davis was a first-round pick at wide receiver. The slew of running backs were all among the conference’s best. Fleck did a great job to put together an offensive line worthy of those skill players, but Minnesota has average talent relative to the rest of the Big Ten. Is it out of the realm of possibility to say that it will take him some time to get things going? He has to find a quarterback first and foremost and nobody on the team has thrown more than 17 passes at the college level.
Rodney Smith is a great running back and he rushed for over 1,200 yards and crossed the goal line 12 times. The top returning receiver was Smith with 23 catches, so he’ll be used a ton, but where is production going to come from otherwise? Rashad Still caught 18 passes for a 19.4 average, but that was about it as far as receivers go. This looks like a pretty one-dimensional offense right now. At least Mitch Leidner was a big runner and had some passing chops. Will it be Demry Croft, who was redshirted last season? Will Fleck use Seth Green, who has no NCAA experience? Somebody has to emerge here. I’d rather open low on Minnesota and adjust up than get caught with a team that disappoints.
The defense is pretty strong here. Top cornerback Jalen Myrick is gone. KiAnte Hardin, whose name was brought up in that sexual assault case, was a very good player when he was out there, but he was hurt and/or suspended. The secondary was great in run support and aided a front seven that loses almost the entire defensive line and also a couple key linebackers. It may take a little bit of time for Fleck to get the talent that he needs to keep the defense at a high level.
Minnesota’s defense had some impressive numbers last season, but caught Penn State before the Nittany Lions really hit their stride, avoided Ohio State and Michigan, and now has a different set of schemes to adjust to. It’s not like Fleck is in a pressure cooker of a situation at Minnesota. Nobody has delusions of grandeur about bringing a Big Ten title back to the Twin Cities. Fleck has the luxury of time and that may be really evident this year as he tries to get a look at what he has in terms of underclassmen and freshmen. Is that going to help Minnesota in November with a four-game stretch of Michigan, Nebraska, Northwestern, and Wisconsin?
At least the Golden Gophers avoid Ohio State and Penn State. That certainly helps in the Big Ten this season. The early part of the schedule does allow the Gophers to get off to a good start, which could lead to some confidence early on. That could also lead to some power ratings adjustments with a team that probably won’t sustain that pace throughout the season.
Win Total Pick: Under 7
Minnesota has a stretch of five straight bowl game appearances on the line this season. They look like about a six-win team given my numbers, though, admittedly, I do appear to be fairly low on some of the Big Ten West. We’ll find out a lot about how Fleck and his systems are adjusting with the road game at Oregon State and the home game against a dangerous Middle Tennessee team before conference play begins. I’m not sure that people are going to like what they see, but Fleck turned around Western Michigan in a hurry and clearly has a high ceiling as a head coach. It’s all about how quick a quarterback shows up.