It’s funny how a narrative can drastically change over the course of a few weeks in college football. When the season approached the month of November, we wondered if Minnesota should start rethinking its decision to keep P.J. Fleck around. That thought didn’t last 30 days, and now we’re marveling at what the Gophers accomplished.
Minnesota closed the year with wins in two of its final three games. It posted victories over Purdue (41-10) and Wisconsin (37-15) to reach the all-important six-win mark. And while a meager .500 record normally isn’t even worthy of a refrigerator magnet, this year, making the postseason feels like a moment worth celebrating with a bottle of champagne.
For most of the season, the Gophers were riding on a tattered raft and somehow rowed their way to shore.
The offense relied on true freshman walk-on Zack Annexstad under center to start the season. It ended the year with redshirt freshman Tanner Morgan at quarterback. With Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith out most of the year, third-string running back Mohamed Ibrahim became the primary ball carrier. Antoine Winfield Jr. was lost early in the season. Minnesota started B1G play 0-4, losing by an average of nearly 22 points per game. Fleck made a decision to fire defensive coordinator Robb Smith with just three weeks remaining.
There was a 53-28 loss to a winless Nebraska team. Two weeks later, the Gophers lost to lowly Illinois 55-31.
Minnesota faced more obstacles than a steeplechase, and with a roster greener than the Emerald City, there was no expectation that it would take a 3-4 start and manufacture a bowl bid. And yet, the Gophers will be tuned into ESPN on Sunday, waiting to hear where they’ll spend the postseason.
“We’ve been through a lot of adversity going into this season. We knew that, being young and inexperienced, that’s adversity in itself,” Fleck said after Minnesota’s win over Purdue. “And then all the things that have happened from Week 1 all the way until now. I don’t think I’ve ever seen as much adversity in one year from a football team that I’ve coached, that I’ve been around.”
The last three weeks seemed to be a sneak peek into Fleck’s vision of the program. The first building blocks for a program dedicated to constructing a contender. There’s still a bowl game remaining, but people can’t help but think about 2019.
Looking ahead is all well-and-good, but what shouldn’t get lost is the significance of this season and the kind of turnaround this team needed to even get into the postseason conversation.
From an outsider’s perspective, this might look like a typical 6-6 campaign. Minnesota lost some games it should’ve won, and won some games it should’ve lost. In the end, it all evened out. But 2018 was anything but normal. Fleck and Co. might’ve kept their oars in the water, but the canoe was making circles through the first seven weeks of the season.
How everything got straightened out, and so quickly, is still a bit of a mystery.
This season won’t be remembered as one of the best in Minnesota history. Nobody is running to the bookstore to purchase a T-shirt with a 6-6 record plastered on the front. But that doesn’t minimize what the Gophers accomplished this fall.
It’s appropriate that Minnesota’s season ended by beating the Badgers and reclaiming Paul Bunyan’s Axe. It was a message to Wisconsin and the rest of the B1G that the Gophers are here for the long haul.
And now they have the right tool to clear their path to the top of the B1G West.