To serve up a surprise is one thing. Delivering without the element of stealth is another.

No matter what the COVID-impacted 2020 season ends up looking like, Minnesota won’t likely catch any opponent unawares. Not after producing NCAA Division I’s seventh-most efficient offense according to ESPN’s SP+ rankings.

So the challenge becomes reproducing against Big Ten defenses that have had a year to digest the Gophers’ attack and, in several cases, lick the wounds they sustained from it.

Fortunately for a localized but rabid fan base in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, Minnesota could be even more potent when it has the ball this season.

Consider that the Gophers have:

  • Nine of 11 starters back.
  • An elite quarterback in Tanner Morgan.
  • A receiver who could be one of the first picked in the 2021 NFL Draft.
  • An offensive line that’s as experienced as it is gargantuan.
  • A new coordinator expected to bring tweaks to an offense that isn’t gimmicky or sexy, but was one of the Big Ten’s best at exploiting opponents’ defensive deficiencies in 2019.

The jump from 2018, P.J. Fleck’s second season as head coach, was astounding: 75th to seventh nationally in offensive SP+, and 71st nationally in yards per play (5.7) to 21st (6.4). Minnesota won four Big Ten games by at least 20 points for the first time since 1934 and vanquished multiple Top 10 teams for the first time in a season since 1956.

Of course, there are questions. What does Rashod Bateman look like with Tyler Johnson now prepping to catch passes from Tom Brady in Tampa? Can a line that returns all five starters stay healthy and continue to grow like it did last season? Who helps Mohamed Ibrahim fill the carries vacated by departed running backs Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks? What does an offense co-led by Mike Sanford Jr. look like with virtually no spring practice? Does the new OC know how to draw up a play to a tight end?

But assuming the majority of those answers are affirmative, the Gophers could be even more formidable whenever the next college football season finally begins.

Personnel: Better

Key losses: Tyler Johnson, WR; Rodney Smith, RB; Shannon Brooks, RB

Key returnees: Tanner Morgan, QB; Mohamed Ibrahim, RB; Rashod Bateman, WR; Chris Autman-Bell, WR; Sam Schlueter; T, Blaise Andries; G, Conner Olson, C/G; Daniel Faalele, T; Curtis Dunlap Jr., G; John Michael Schmitz, C

Potential breakout players: Bryce Williams, RB; Cam Wiley, RB; Demetrius Douglas, WR; Seth Green, WR; Bryce Witham, TE; Ko Kieft, TE; Jason Dickson, T; Austin Beier, T; Axel Ruschmeyer, G; J.J. Guedet, T

It’ll take a couple committees to replace three of the most prolific skill players in program history. But under center and in the trenches, Minnesota returns plenty of talent from last year’s 11-2 squad that beat No. 5 Penn State and No. 9 Auburn. Morgan and Bateman, both juniors, are back to lead the Big Ten’s No. 4 scoring offense. Fans in Dinkytown like to say six offensive line starters are back, too; Schmitz started four games at center in 2019.

Passing offense: Better

Losing Johnson, a North Minneapolis native who tops the program’s receiving charts and was recently named to the Big Ten Network’s All-Decade Team, hurts. But Bateman stayed stride-for-side with the eventual Buccaneers’ fifth-round pick last season and at times looked even more consistent.

Sixty receptions, 1,219 yards and an eye-popping 20 yards per reception are nothing to pout about.

Neither is a quarterback who’s essentially Fleck’s third arm dressed in football pads and wearing No. 2. While the scheme may be slightly different with Sanford in the fold, expect him, Fleck and co-offensive coordinator and receivers coach Matt Simon to stick with what has worked.

Give Morgan time behind that massive O-line, complement his arm with a punishing ground game, and allow the QB to let it rip.

Morgan’s all-Big Ten second-team performance saw him break school records for passing yards (3,253), touchdown passes (30) and passer rating (178.7), among others.

He’ll have both well-recognized and new names to throw to in 2020. Behind Bateman, Autman-Bell (28 catches for 371 yards and 5 touchdowns last season) and Douglas (14 catches, 157 yards) are the top candidates for increased targets. So are the tight ends, a position group that totaled only 10 catches in 2019. Word out of Athletes Village is Fleck and his offensive brain trust would like to see that number increase this year.

Rushing offense: Even

Think about this: After Minnesota topped Auburn on New Year’s Day, three members of the roster ranked among the program’s top 25 rushers.

Two of them, Smith and Brooks, are gone. The third, Ibrahim, is poised for a special redshirt junior season.

Ibrahim averages more than 5.5 yards per carry and is at No. 24 on the Gophers’ all-time charts. He’s one of the Big Ten’s toughest backs to bring down, and in 2018 he had five 100-yard games as a freshman before Smith and Brooks returned from injuries.

But Fleck’s zone-oriented ground game is predicated on fresh legs. Wiley and Williams both redshirted after limited action last season, and Treyson Potts and Preston Jelen are also backs to keep an eye on.

Whoever’s toting the ball will do so behind one of the nation’s most experienced and formidable offensive lines. At 6-foot-9 and 400 pounds, Faalele is the largest of a starting group that averages 340 pounds.

They got better as the 2019 season went on. Now, can they win trench battles for four quarters against the likes of Iowa and Wisconsin?

Special teams: Even

If there’s an area where the Gophers could use some more electricity, this is it.

Returning kicker Michael Lantz made 47 of 49 extra-point tries and 8 of 11 field-goal attempts last season, but his long came from just 40 yards. Brock Walker returns after making 6 of 7 PATs and 3 of 4 field goals with a long of 26.

Douglas served as Minnesota’s primary return man, averaging 16.6 yards on eight kickoff returns and 3.4 yards on 11 punt returns. He and Wiley will likely battle for return duties this season.

Overall: Better

Minnesota’s offense was one of college football’s most surprising stories last season. Now, Fleck says, it needs to perform consistently when the lights are brightest.

“Nobody’s going to put more pressure on our team than us,” Fleck told radio host Jim Rome earlier this offseason. “Nobody’s going to put more pressure on me than me. Nobody’s going to put more pressure on our players than our players.

“The slogan for the year is ‘do it better for longer.’ The two games we lost, Iowa and Wisconsin, we were consistent, but we weren’t consistent enough. That’s what we need to get back to.”

On the offensive side of the ball, at least, it’d be a disappointment if Morgan, Bateman, Ibrahim and Co. don’t make it happen.