Way too early 2016 look: Minnesota
Coach: Tracy Claeys (second season, 2-4 after taking over for Jerry Kill)
2015 record: 6-7 (2-6 in B1G)
Biggest losses: K.J. Maye, WR; Briean Boddy-Calhoun, CB; Eric Murray, CB
Biggest returners: Shannon Brooks, RB; Rodney Smith, RB; Mitch Leidner, QB
2016 recruiting class ranking: No. 40 (8th in B1G)
Top committed recruit: Four-star LB Carter Coughlin
2016 strength: Running backs
One of the question marks entering the 2014-15 season was who would emerge at tailback. Lucky for Minnesota, it had two freshmen step up. Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith will be one of the conference’s better 1-2 punches after a year in which they combined for 1,379 rushing yards and nine touchdowns. Brooks emerged more after Claeys took over, and he looked to be the better pass-catching threat. That could warrant more snaps for the sophomore-to-be, who also averaged six yards per carry. With Claeys and new offensive coordinator Jay Johnson, the goal will be to transition into a more skill-player oriented attack. The running game will be Minnesota’s strength, but it’ll look different than the workhorse back systems of the Kill era.
2016 weakness: Secondary
Any time you lose a couple of NFL-caliber guys from the secondary, that’s going to be tough to replace. Briean Boddy-Calhoun and Eric Murray were two of the better cover corners in America, and both will be dearly missed in 2016. But the loss of Antonio Johnson is big, as well. The safety was the team’s leading tackler and was one of the big reasons Minnesota was one of the nation’s best against the pass. Adekunle Ayinde will be able to pick up some of the slack without Johnson and Jalen Myrick had arguably the best ball-hawking skills of any Gopher this year. But Jay Sawvel is going to have his work cut out for him to make sure this group, which dealt with a ton of injuries last year, doesn’t skip a beat. Myrick and Damarius Travis are both coming back from season-ending injuries and will be asked to provide leadership for a new-look group. Every single B1G West team outside of Wisconsin returns its starting quarterback. If Minnesota struggles without its dynamic cornerback duo, there are plenty of capable signal-callers that can pick apart the Gophers.
Way-too-early 2016 projection: 8-4 (5-4 in B1G)
Remember when Minnesota had the most challenging schedule coming into 2015? Well, that’ll be a different story in 2016. Not only do the Gophers get Oregon State, Indiana State and Colorado State at home, they also miss out on Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State. Minnesota’s toughest games of the year will be home vs. Iowa, at Nebraska and at Wisconsin. That’s a whole lot more manageable than vs. TCU, vs. Michigan and at Ohio State. In other words, the Gophers have the ability to get back into the conference’s top half. The questions remain on the defensive side and in the passing game. Mitch Leidner looked much better in Claeys’ offense, which could help make Minnesota more balanced than it’s been in year’ past. That, ultimately, could push Minnesota back above mediocrity.