10 bold predictions for Minnesota in 2020
Going back to the Big Ten’s original decision to postpone fall football in early August, the Minnesota Golden Gophers have battled the perception they weren’t as fired up about playing this year as other members of their conference.
President Joan Gabel was vocal in commending the B1G’s choice. She also helped stir confusion about the league’s decision making when she suggested the group never held a formal vote to postpone. Meanwhile, Athletic Director Mark Coyle went with the sympathetic but understanding message — nothing resembling the pushback from Nebraska, Ohio State, Penn State and others.
And coach P.J. Fleck said he met with every single player on his team, and they all came to the same conclusion: they wanted to play, but they understood why they couldn’t. Now that the B1G has reversed course and Minnesota’s season opener against Michigan is just a week away, Fleck has been on a campaign to emphasize that first part of the program’s stance. And in so doing, he hopes to clear up any misconceptions heading into this COVID-sidetracked 2020 season.
“The first thing I said was, ‘we want to play,’ ” Fleck said. “If you go back … I said there’s not one coach or one player who doesn’t want to play. We all want to play. I think I made that very clear.”
With the proper protocols in place, they should. The Gophers are coming off their best season in nearly 7 decades. They return an all-B1G caliber quarterback in Tanner Morgan, a potential 1st-round pick in receiver Rashod Bateman — who himself flipped his decision after opting out in August — and a running back who could help rewrite the position’s program history this fall.
The defense is more of a question mark with just 4 returning starters.
Nevertheless, “our team’s really excited to play football this fall,” Morgan said. “We trust that the doctors and medical professionals do their jobs and to be able to put us in safe environments. … It’s a blessing and it helps us to understand, like, ‘hey, nothing is given. This is a privilege, what we’re able to do.’ Playing collegiate football in the B1G is a privilege.”
This year, making predictions might be even more precarious than normal. But here are 10 of our best ones for the Gophers:
1. Although Bateman’s back, more players will opt out.
OK, we’re starting with one that isn’t that bold given what Fleck said earlier this week: “There is going to be guys that opt out, guys that opt back in. I won’t get into specifics of that because we are still three weeks away from the game.” Fleck’s words came after No. 3 wideout and return specialist Demetrius Douglas announced he was stepping away from the football program. Sounds like he won’t be the last.
2. Morgan will put up Heisman-like numbers, but won’t be a finalist for the award.
The national view of the Kentucky native is something along the lines of: “Oh yeah, he’s one of those talented cats who flew under the radar and is now putting up big numbers at a good-hoping-to-be-great program.” That doesn’t really do it justice, though. Three quarterbacks in 2019 had a better passer rating than Morgan (178.7). Two of them are in the NFL. The other is sure-fire Heisman candidate Justin Fields of Ohio State. Morgan ranked better than Fields in both yards and yards per attempt. He’s not the dual-threat type of quarterback Heisman voters often gravitate toward. But if Morgan improves even slightly he’s going to have another special season — and it could be the junior’s last if his NFL prospects rise as a result.
3. Rashod Bateman will top his 2019 receiving totals.
It won’t be easy to exceed 1,200 yards on 60 catches — especially with the departure of fellow wideout Tyler Johnson for the NFL and 2020’s 9-game regular season. It’ll be easier for defenses to key on Bateman this season, but that honestly won’t matter in most matchups. He’s that fast, that precise with his routes and has that good of hands.
4. Mariano Sori-Marin will become a B1G household name.
If his name only vaguely rings a bell for you, expect that to change. After recording 42 tackles as a sophomore, the Illinois native is expected to continue the tradition of successful linebackers in Dinkytown. He’s already the group’s vocal leader, on both the schematic and emotional planes. Watch out for No. 55 this season.
5. 3 tight ends will score TDs and 2 of them will catch 10 or more passes.
It’s no secret Minnesota’s tight ends have been under-used in recent years. New co-offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr. appears intent on changing that. He’s got the horses — Jake Paulson, Brevyn Spann-Ford and Bryce Witham — to do it.
6. Minnesota will rank in the top 5 in the conference in scoring defense.
The Gophers came out on top of the revised schedule lottery, avoiding both Ohio State and Penn State during the regular season. While there will be plenty of new faces in the front seven, the back end is fairly secure — even with the loss of Antoine Winfield Jr. Corners Benjamin St Juste and Coney Durr comprise one of the best returning duos in the conference.
7. Mohamed Ibrahim will rush for over 1,000 yards.
It’s a shame Minnesota and the rest of the B1G is playing a shortened schedule, because Ibrahim is capable of putting up David Cobb or Laurence Maroney-type numbers if he’s healthy. After a by-committee approach the past couple seasons, Ibrahim will be the bell cow until another younger back steps up. Averaging more than 111 yards per game in this league isn’t an easy task, but Ibrahim and the Gophers’ offensive line — which is set to return all 5 starters — have the ingredients to make it happen. Playing later into the winter is going to put more of a premium on the ground game, to boot.
8. P.J. Fleck will reference at least 3 more children’s literary classics as allegories for his team’s season.
College football’s most eccentric coach has already read “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” to his team of 18-22-year-old college students. “We have to get everything juuuuust right,” he says in reference to dealing with COVID-19. Some other candidates for comparisons that are sure to stick:
- “Where the Wild Things Are” — An adventure into uncharted territory and the land of giants if Minnesota is able to win the West and get Ohio State in the conference title game.
- “The Little Engine That Could” — Probably not the most flattering for a program that’s trying to market itself as one that belongs in the B1G’s upper echelon. But with lower resources, a smaller stadium and less recent tradition, this fits. At least for the moment.
- “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” — It’s pretty easy to see Fleck telling the public how his crew is “STILL hungry” even after its recent success. This is also easily tied to the Gophers’ massive offensive line, which averages 340 pounds per starter.
- “Go Dog Go” — “We’re just a bunch of dogs, all headed in the same direction. Same goal, same objective,” Fleck says as his team preps for its Thanksgiving Weekend edition of the Battle for the Axe against Wisconsin.
9. The Axe will come back to Minnesota, but …
Minnesota was more than capable of hanging with its border rival last season but laid an egg with the entire nation watching. The last team to lose this game seems to have the psychological upper hand lately, and the Badgers are dealing with their own loss of talent on both sides of the ball.
10. … The Gophers will stumble elsewhere along the way.
It could be Week 1 at Michigan. Or perhaps Illinois, Purdue, Northwestern or Nebraska sneaks up and bites the Gophers. They won’t have the chance to get hot against lesser competition like they did in the nonconference last year, and they lost too much on defense for us to pick them to win the division. We’ll call it 7-2 — not where Minnesota wants to be, but certainly not a step back.