Minnesota football: 10 critical questions the Golden Gophers must answer in 2022
It’s no secret that Minnesota has been one of the more consistent teams in the Big Ten over the past several seasons.
But despite the Golden Gophers’ efforts, they haven’t won a Big Ten championship since 1967. They haven’t even played in the Big Ten Championship Game. The closest they got to that was in 2019, when they shared the Big Ten West Division crown with Wisconsin.
Can they finally get over that hump this year? They certainly have the talent to do that. But before they can even think about a trophy, here are 10 questions that the Gophers need to answer first as they continue training camp.
1. How can Tanner Morgan cement his place in Gophers’ history?
There are some records that Morgan will be chasing in 2022. He is just 2,875 yards shy of Adam Weber’s record for career passing yards (10,917). Morgan also will be going after Weber’s record for career passing touchdowns, needing 17 to pass him. With Morgan already holding the record for passing yards in a single season (3,253, 2019), it looks like there are just a few more records standing in his way of becoming one of the great QBs in Minnesota history.
2. Can Mohamed Ibrahim set some Minnesota all-time records?
Another Minnesota player has the opportunity to move up the leaderboards at his position. Ibrahim is currently 8th in career rushing yards (3,003), and is 1,515 yards behind Darrell Thompson for the lead. The career rushing touchdowns for Ibrahim is another record to watch. He has 33 touchdowns and needs 8 to break Thompson’s record.
3. Will Ibrahim be the only back to rush for 1,000 yards?
The top 2 backs to begin the season last year — Ibrahim and Trey Potts — have returned from injury. The top 2 backs who finished the season last year have hit the transfer portal. So … could Minnesota have dual 1,000-yard backs for the first time since Laurence Maroney and Marion Barber III accomplished the feat in 2003 and 2004?
A healthy Ibrahim cranked out 1,000+ over only 7 games in 2020. Potts had 3 straight 100-yard games after Ibrahim went down in the 2021 season-opener and averaged 110 yards over 5 games before suffering his own season-ending injury. Minnesota produced almost 2,600 rushing yards last year.
The factors working against having 2 1,000-yard backs? Ibrahim might get the bulk of the carries, and Minnesota might pass more with QB Tanner Morgan reunited with OC Kirk Ciarrocca.
4. How much playing time should Cole Kramer see?
As much as it hurts to think about, there will be a new quarterback for Minnesota after Morgan graduates. His replacement could very well be Cole Kramer. Kramer will have 2 years of eligibility left following 2022. The young QB has just 11 games of experience under his belt. It could do the Golden Gophers some good to give Kramer more playing time as Morgan’s backup.
5. Can Chris Autman-Bell pass Rashod Bateman on all-time lists?
If he stays healthy and continues to put up consistent numbers, he just might. Autman-Bell needs just 8 touchdown catches to pass Bateman for 5th all-time at Minnesota, 34 receptions to pass Bateman for 6th and 640 receiving yards to pass Bateman for 6th in that category as well.
6. What key things need to change on offense?
Getting the running backs more involved in the passing game. Last year this group combined for just 17 catches for 150 yards (no touchdowns). They also need improved offensive line play. Last year, Minnesota was one of 9 Big Ten teams that gave up 20 or more sacks (20). If the backs can catch more balls out of the backfield, and if Morgan is kept upright, it’ll be easier for him to achieve those aforementioned milestones.
7. What is the biggest challenge for the defense?
Minnesota finished the 2021 season with the 4th-least points allowed per game in the B1G. At the same time, the Golden Gophers were also 2nd in passing yards allowed, rushing yards allowed and total yards allowed per game. That wasn’t the problem. Minnesota finished 10th in the B1G in sacks (20). The turnovers didn’t come easy for the defense either, as they only had 16 takeaways. Improving in those two areas will be the challenge as it will help them get better in the other categories. They also must find a way to replace the production lost by the departures of Boye Mafe and Jack Gibbens.
8. Who needs to step up on defense?
Defensive linemen Logan Richter (2 career tackles), Danny Striggow (only played in 1 game), Gage Keys (has yet to take the field) and Jalen Logan-Redding (played in 6 games in 2020 and 2021 combined) all need to step up and prove themselves if this defense is to remain consistent. Especially since coach Fleck used the transfer portal to beef up this position.
9. Which newcomers are worth watching?
I’m really excited to see d-line transfers Kyler Baugh (Houston Baptist), Darnell Jefferies (Clemson) and Lorenza Surgers (Vanderbilt) take the field. Their individual success at their previous schools leads me to believe that they’ll help this defense replace some of that aforementioned lost production. On the offensive side, you may want to pay attention to wide receiver Clay Geary and running back Preston Jelen.
Geary only had 6 catches to his credit, as he’s mostly been a special teams player. As he heads into his final year in Minneapolis, I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets more balls thrown his way. As far as Jelen is concerned, he’s due for his big chance. He’s only run the ball 4 times, and hasn’t done so since 2020. And considering he’s a senior now, perhaps he’ll get a bigger opportunity with the run game before he graduates.
10. What’s the best path to the B1G title game?
Beating Iowa and Wisconsin for starters. Collectively, the Hawkeyes and Badgers have represented the West Division in 6 of the past 8 championship games (Northwestern accounts for the other 2, in 2018 and 2020). Minnesota has not beaten Wisconsin and Iowa in the same season under the Big Ten’s current divisional alignment (since 2014). In fact, they’ve gone 2-6 against the archrival Badgers and 1-7 against the Hawkeyes during that span.
The Gophers must also avoid getting upset by teams such as Illinois, Northwestern and Nebraska. Minnesota has posted a combined 8-7 record against those teams dating back to 2015. Doing better against the East Division would help as well, seeing as the Gophers have lost 3 of their past 5 games against the opposite side of the standings.