Michigan loss provided Minnesota a barometer; the rest of the schedule will test its mettle
MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota’s historic 2019 season showed what can happen when an innovative head coach, highly-capable quarterback, punishing offensive line, experienced defense and boat full of confidence and momentum are melded together.
The Golden Gophers’ blowout loss to Michigan on Saturday revealed something else: a reminder of what happens when there are simply more capable dudes on the opposite side of the line of scrimmage.
Up until last season, frankly, folks around here didn’t need much of a refresher.
But every program has a ceiling. Right now, Michigan’s is probably an upset Big Ten Championship. Ohio State’s is a national title. Minnesota’s is currently being raised from occasional spoiler to legitimate B1G West contender.
But heightening a ceiling requires structural upheaval. And the journey toward it usually more Lake Superior face-climbing excursion than a scenic, easygoing Boundary Waters canoe trip.
As convincing as the Gophers made it look at times last year, and as weird as 2020 has been between no spring practice and a completely altered fall calendar, the need for a true two-deep roster has never been more prevalent. Not just for Minnesota, but for the entire sport.
“The way we’re recruiting and how we’re recruiting, the program is going like that,” Fleck said, pointing up, “but you’ve still got to be able to create that depth, and I still think we’re a year away from that type of depth where if two offensive linemen go down, you can fill with two offensive linemen.”
The Gophers, who fell out of the AP poll for the first time in about a year, were indeed down starters Curtis Dunlap Jr. and Daniel Faalele up front Saturday. They were also missing starting linebacker Braelen Oliver and the majority of their kickers — and we’re going to throw that piece of the conversation out because COVID is doing things this season we’ve never seen and hopefully never will again.
Fleck’s right about recruiting. Here’s how Minnesota’s classes have ranked per 247Sports since he took over:
- 2017: 64th in FBS, 13th B1G
- 2018: 32nd, 8th
- 2019: 43rd, 10th
- 2020: 33rd, 7th
- 2021 (as of Sunday): 20th, 5th
In that same time frame, Michigan’s classes have never finished outside the top 20 nationally. Every single group has been listed either second or third in the B1G.
You saw the difference when the Wolverines ran all over Minnesota for 256 yards and sacked quarterback Tanner Morgan 5 times Saturday.
Are the Wolverines the true target? Not yet. Some combination of Wisconsin, Iowa and/or Nebraska have all traditionally out-recruited the Gophers during the modern era, too.
To become a consistent threat, that’ll have to change. So will Fleck and his staff’s ability to develop talent behind their starting 22, which last year was as good as any in the division.
These divisional crossover games, however, can be the difference between playing for a conference championship or having to remind folks there was technically a tie for the division crown as Fleck did last year.
It comes down to what happens when a key cog or two goes down, which is inevitable during even a “normal” autumn. COVID-19 has this uncanny knack for exacerbating already-existing problems, and overall depth is no exception.
In the meantime, though, there are still seven more B1G games plus a TBD divisional crossover to close out the season. Multiple fans and members of the media were observed Saturday night claiming expectations for the year should be reset after Week 1.
Minnesota’s slate says otherwise.
The Gophers’ toughest opponent may be behind them. Their next three contests are Friday at hapless Maryland, Nov. 7 at equally inept Illinois and Nov. 13 at home against Iowa, which lost to Purdue sans its head coach and best player Saturday.
Border nemesis Wisconsin looked the best of any West team in its 45-7 victory over the Illini on Friday, but the Badgers aren’t without flaws. There remains a very realistic chance these teams’ Thanksgiving Weekend matchup in Madison decides the West.
We’ve seen what Fleck’s Minnesota can do when it gets rolling. Now we’ll see what happens when it gets smacked in the mouth.
“It’s a difficult challenge,” Fleck said, “but everyone has challenges in 2020.”
Said Morgan: “The sky hasn’t fallen on the season or anything. … We’ve got to be better. We will be better.”