Was there a bigger surprise last season than the Minnesota Golden Gophers? Usually a middle-of-the-pack team in the Big Ten, the 2019 Minnesota team was legit. PJ Fleck has built himself quite the football team going 11-2 (7-2 in the Big Ten) on their way to an Outback Bowl win against Auburn. It remains to be seen whether 2019 was a fluke or if Fleck is playing the long game in the Twin-Cities, but there are many things to be optimistic about for the 2020 version of the squad.
Defensively, the Gophers will need to find their identity after losing seven 2019 starters. Losing Antoine Winfield Jr. is a big hit, but the rest of the secondary will return. Benjamin St-Juste and Coney Durr, who each had 10 pass breakups in 2019, and strong safety Jordan Howden, who is the team’s top returning tackler, are back.
The front seven, however, will need to rely on younger, inexperienced players to step up into bigger roles. Among these are Winfield Jr.’s replacement, Tyler Nubin, who was a highly-touted prospect and saw most of his playing time as a special teamer.
Defensive coordinator Joe Rossi will rely on defensive ends Boye Mafe and Esezi Otomewo to take on a much larger role. All of that being said, the defense may be a problem for the Gophers this season. Given that teams could not have spring camp this year due to the Covid-19 pandemic, it is challenging to expect units with limited experience to come out swinging right away. Teams with huge turnover will likely experience some growing pains in this year’s Big Ten season.
New offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr. looks forward to the return of Tanner Morgan, Mo Ibrahim, and most of 2019’s starting offensive line. Having Morgan is a massive plus for the Gophers. The redshirt-junior was one of the very best quarterbacks in the Big Ten last year, throwing for a total of 3,253 yards and 30 touchdowns against only seven interceptions. If he can have another season like that, the Gophers will be on pace for another great year.
Initially, Morgan’s problem was that he would have to overcome the loss of his leading rusher and his two top receivers (following the decision by Rashod Bateman to opt-out). Taylor and Bateman were particularly troubling, as the two accounted for nearly 2,600 yards and 24 touchdowns in 2019. Following Bateman’s earlier decision, though, he was cleared to play this fall. This means that Tanner Morgan will have a target that tallied 1,219 yards and 11 touchdowns last year, injecting some much-needed experience to the unit that is already set to miss two of its most significant contributors.
Overall, the Gophers will have to overcome a ton of turnover this year, even with the reversal of Bateman’s decision. That being said, their schedule looks relatively advantageous for them. Two of their most challenging games, Iowa and Wisconsin, will be winnable for them. With Wisconsin losing Jonathan Taylor (as well as Jack Coan to injury) and Iowa breaking in a new quarterback, it seems that a well-ordered Minnesota team could sneak away with wins against both teams.
2020 season record prediction: 6-2
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