Crystal Ball: Predicting every game on Minnesota’s schedule in 2021
Editor’s note: Saturday Tradition’s annual Crystal Ball series continues today with Minnesota. We’ll stay with the B1G West all week. Up next: Nebraska.
I’m still not sure what to make of Minnesota.
On the one hand, Minnesota was severely limited by COVID throughout last season. The Golden Gophers played without more than 20 players, including their kicker, in the opener against Michigan. They canceled a game against Northwestern with 47 players and staff unavailable. They played Nebraska down 35 players — and won. It was a recurring theme.
On the other hand, Minnesota had most of its offensive stars intact. Mohamed Ibrahim had a terrific season, but the Tanner Morgan-Rashod Bateman duo wasn’t nearly as lethal as it was in 2019. More accurately, the offense seemed to miss departed offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca.
It sets the stage for an interesting season in which Morgan and Ibrahim are back in a West Division that is typically wide open. Will Minnesota be like the 2019 squad that finished the season ranked No. 10? Or the 2020 squad that went 3-4 and missed out on a bowl game?
Minnesota never lost its fight
Minnesota never threw in the towel during 2020, unlike some other Big Ten teams. (Michigan comes to mind.) I guess that just kind of reflects the personality of head coach P.J. Fleck, who is unrelentingly positive.
Look no further than the win at Nebraska in which Minnesota’s shaky defense buckled down and only allowed a field goal in the second half and the offense killed the final 4:42 with all running plays. The Golden Gophers were down several starters, on the road and playing for pure pride in mid-December, yet they grinded out a win. That carried over to the next week in the season finale at Wisconsin when they lost in overtime.
Even in a weird season that started with a lopsided loss to a bad Michigan team and an OT loss to a young Maryland team, Minnesota significantly improved.
That follows the trajectory of Fleck’s tenure, in which Minnesota went from 5 wins, to 7, to 11 in his first 3 seasons. With 20 starters back, it would be surprising if Minnesota didn’t get back on track.
But that comes down to Morgan recapturing the 2019 magic
Morgan has gone through a lot personally, as his father recently passed away. He’ll undoubtedly be playing with a heavy heart. How will that impact his play? No one can be sure.
There’s no doubt he wasn’t himself in 2020, though, as he posted career lows in completion percentage (57.9), yards per attempt (7.5) and QB rating (128.2). They were all significantly down from a standout 2019 season in which he threw 30 TDs and 7 INTs, and also down from his freshman season in which he started the final 6 games.
Morgan’s incredible 2019 season came with both Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman, both of whom are in the NFL. He has neither of them now, and Chris Autman-Bell is the lone proven wideout.
But with Ibrahim and all 5 starters on the offensive line back, look for Morgan to bounce back.
Will transfers rescue the defense?
Minnesota was 10th in total defense in 2019, and it dropped all the way to No. 72 in 2020. The most egregious element was the run defense that ranked 124th nationally, allowing 6.3 yards per carry.
To shore it up, Minnesota loaded up on graduate transfers. Nyles Pinckney (Clemson) and Val Martin (N.C. State) will help immensely up front, and Jack Gibbens (Abilene Christian) is expected to contribute at linebacker.
That is the biggest area where Minnesota needs to show improvement, especially since it plays in the West where teams like Wisconsin and Iowa will happily run the ball all game long with their big offensive lines.
Week 1: vs. Ohio State (L)
This would be a stunning upset, if only for the College Football Playoff implications. But when you look a little closer, it wouldn’t be entirely surprising. Minnesota’s QB has been starting for 2 1/2 seasons, Ohio State’s QB hasn’t thrown a pass in college. Minnesota has 20 starters back, Ohio State has 11. It’s at TCF Bank Stadium on a Thursday night. But then again, the Buckeyes are insanely talented.
Week 2: vs. Miami of Ohio (W)
The RedHawks should be one of the better teams in the MAC, but this is a good opportunity for Minnesota to get right after a tough opener and before a tough non-conference road trip.
Week 3: at Colorado (W)
This will be Minnesota’s toughest non-conference game since playing TCU in 2015. For whatever reason, the Golden Gophers always ease into the season, but not in 2021, obviously. Colorado was a pleasant surprise last year, opening 4-0 after Mel Tucker bolted for Michigan State in the middle of the offseason. While Colorado does return 16 starters, I’m thinking last year’s 4-2 campaign was a little bit fluky. Minnesota is 0-3 all-time against Colorado, but the last meeting was 29 years ago, so throw the history out the window.
Week 4: vs. Bowling Green (W)
The Falcons are just 8-33 over the last 4 seasons, including an 0-5 campaign in 2020. And they only have 11 starters back. This should be a breeze for Minnesota.
Week 5: at Purdue (L)
Minnesota has won 7 of 8 in this series (including a near-perfect performance from Morgan here in 2019), but I think Purdue is still salty over the way the 2020 game ended. And the Boilermakers should be miffed, as that phantom offensive pass interference call wiped out the go-ahead TD with less than a minute left. Purdue gets its revenge in 2021.
Week 6: Bye
Week 7: vs. Nebraska (W)
The Golden Gophers have won the last 2, and I think they make it 3 in a row with a win at home. Even though, on paper, Nebraska has a better defense and more offensive weapons, the Huskers are just hard to trust. Minnesota racked up over 200 rushing yards last season, and I think Mohamed Ibrahim will control the game again.
Week 8: vs. Maryland (W)
In a rematch of one of the most entertaining games of 2020, Minnesota doesn’t let the game turn into a shootout with 89 total points. It will be easier to get stops at home, and the Golden Gophers can keep Taulia Tagovailoa off the field with their own run game.
Week 9: at Northwestern (W)
These teams didn’t play in 2020, and I think it will reflect the 2019 result when Minnesota won handily on the road. The Wildcats don’t have the offense to exploit Minnesota’s below-average defense.
Week 10: vs. Illinois (W)
If Illinois can’t stop Ibrahim again (he had 224 yards and 4 TDs), it’s going to be another long day.
Week 11: at Iowa (L)
The Hawkeyes match up well with the Golden Gophers, who have yet to beat Iowa in Fleck’s 4 seasons. Last year was a thorough dismantling, as Minnesota trailed by 35 and only managed a TD with 14 seconds left to avoid the shutout.
Week 12: at Indiana (L)
With the Hoosiers on the cusp of a New Year’s Six Bowl, I think they’ll be extra focused in this one. The caveat, of course, is whether Michael Penix Jr. is still playing at this point, as he has suffered 3 season-ending injuries in his career.
Week 13: vs. Wisconsin (L)
The most-played rivalry in FBS has been lopsided of late, with Minnesota winning only once in the last 17 meetings. The Golden Gophers probably should’ve won last year but lost in OT. Wisconsin will be playing for a berth in the Big Ten Championship Game, and it will win on the road.
2021 projection: 7-5, 3rd in B1G West
The 2020 season was such a letdown after the breakthrough 2019, and this will get Minnesota back on track. With 20 starters back, Minnesota should absolutely be back in a bowl game.
The Big Ten West is always winnable without Ohio State to stand in the way. If everything breaks right, Minnesota could be looking at a season like 2019, when it was in the West race until the very end. I think the Golden Gophers will be somewhere in the middle of 2019 and 2020 — good, but not great.