Editor’s note: Our annual Crystal Ball series continues with Minnesota. Coming Tuesday: Iowa.

Minnesota’s big breakthrough in 2019 was completely believable and yet very surprising, all at the same time.

Anyone who has followed college football the last few years knows the turnaround head coach PJ Fleck engineered at Western Michigan, from 1-11 in his 1st season to 13-1 in his 4th. That’s how he wound up at Minnesota, where he did something similar — from 5-7 in Year 1 to 11-2 last season, Year 3. That’s the believable part.

As for the surprising part, that would be Minnesota’s improvement throughout the 2019 season. Minnesota did not look like the No. 10 team in the country (its final AP ranking) for most of the season, limping through early games against South Dakota State, Fresno State, Georgia Southern and Purdue by a combined 20 points. It wasn’t until the takedown of No. 5 Penn State that the Golden Gophers got some respect. That culminated in a win over Auburn in the Outback Bowl.

Stepping outside of the Big Ten and beating an upper-echelon SEC team is a significant step for a program that hadn’t been ranked inside the top 20 since 2005. It’s the type of game that Michigan has failed to win the last 4 years.

With his starting quarterback and stud wide receiver back for more, what can Fleck do for an encore?

2019 record: 11-2 (7-2)

Rashod Bateman’s return

It seemed like a longshot that the B1G would have a fall season, and it seemed like just as long of a shot that Bateman would be able to return to the team. After opting out of the season, the projected 1st-round pick signed with an agent, seemingly terminating his college eligibility. He also dealt with his own bout with COVID-19. But as Bateman told The Athletic, he missed his teammates.

Once the B1G reinstated its season, Minnesota welcomed back Bateman with open arms. He started practicing before eventually getting his waiver approved by the NCAA.

The fact that a 1st-round pick from Georgia so desperately wanted to return and play in a season that will largely take place in November and December in Minneapolis says everything you need to know about Bateman and the Minnesota program.

It obviously elevates Minnesota in 2020, as Tanner Morgan and Bateman should form one of the best QB/WR duos in the country. Bateman, the Big Ten’s Wide Receiver of the Year in 2019, is a crisp route-runner capable of blowing the top off the defense or simply moving the chains. His chemistry with Morgan will be a huge advantage in an offseason with limited practice reps.

The perception of Minnesota

Minnesota is one of the least talented teams in the Big Ten, according to 247’s Talent Composite. The Golden Gophers, who are 13th and ahead of only Rutgers, have just 4 4-star players on their roster. That’s a remarkably low number, especially for a team that was ranked No. 19 in the preseason poll. Obviously this doesn’t account for the development of players like Morgan, who was the No. 44 pro-style QB in the 2017 class.

But it does speak to Minnesota’s ceiling. For the Golden Gophers to take the next step, they are going to have to get more talented players on their team.

The question is, how long will it take for the perception of Minnesota to change from middling Big Ten team to upper echelon Big Ten team that beats SEC teams in bowl games?

It looks like Minnesota has already seen a nice boost in recruiting as Fleck begins his 4th season. The Golden Gophers have 4 4-star recruits out of 16 commits so far in the still-to-be-completed 2021 class — the same number of 4-star guys on the current roster. Not bad.

There isn’t a ton of high school talent in Minnesota. There is usually one 4-star recruit each year from the state. Sometimes there are two, sometimes there are none. This is similar to what Wisconsin, Iowa and Nebraska deal with. Fleck has gone into Illinois and Missouri to nab some of their top players in 2020 and 2021. Finding players from Georgia and Florida who were overlooked by the top programs down South will also be key.

Minnesota needs to step it up in recruiting if it wants to catch Wisconsin, which has 6 top-200 players in its 2021 class, including 5-star OT Nolan Rucci. Having seasons like Minnesota had in 2019 isn’t sustainable year-over-year without more talent.

Can Minnesota replicate last season’s magic?

So many key players from last season are gone. Star wideout Tyler Johnson is in the NFL, as is running back Rodney Smith. The defense also lost 4 players to the NFL, including Antoine Winfield. Offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca is now at Penn State.

So, can Fleck and Co. really pull off another season of contending in the West?

I think so, but they will have to play much better early in the season. With an all-B1G schedule, they won’t have the same margin for error they had in the non-conference schedule last year. Minnesota started 9-0, but it really didn’t feel like we knew just how good Minnesota was until its 8th game against Penn State.

At least offensively, players such as WR Chris Autman-Bell and RB Mohamed Ibrahim are anxious to take on larger roles for new OC Mike Sanford. My concern is on a defense that relied heavily on the play-making ability of Winfield (7 INT) and returns just 4 starters.

Game-by-game predictions

Week 1: vs. Michigan (W)

This is the most-interesting B1G game in the opening weekend. There is a massive talent disparity, as Michigan has 43 4-star and 5-star players on its roster, while Minnesota has 4. That doesn’t take into account someone like Morgan, though, who is playing well beyond his 3-star rating. And it doesn’t take into account that Michigan starting QB Joe Milton, a former 4-star recruit, hasn’t started a game yet. That’s why I’m taking the team with the experienced QB and experienced offensive line (Michigan has 1 returning starter, Minnesota has all 5).

Week 2: at Maryland (W)

The Terrapins new QB, whether it is Lance LeGendre or Taulia Tagovailoa, will only be in his 2nd start. Minnesota will have a huge advantage early in the season in opening against two teams with new starters. This one shouldn’t be close.

Week 3: at Illinois (W)

This is a trap game for Minnesota. Illinois pulled off a shocker at home against Wisconsin last season, don’t forget. If Brandon Peters is on his game, Illinois should be able to keep this close.

Week 4: vs. Iowa (W)

This is a big one and will probably determine who the main challenger to Wisconsin will be in the West. Iowa edged Minnesota last season, ending its unbeaten run. Iowa’s inexperience on the defensive front, combined with Minnesota’s experience on the offensive line, could swing this the other way in 2020. In a close game, I like the Tanner Morgan/Rashod Bateman connection.

Week 5: vs. Purdue (W)

Morgan sure loves playing against Purdue. Remember last year? He was 21 of 22 for 396 yards and 4 TDs. Bateman went for 177 yards and 2 TDs. Yeah, I’ll take Minnesota again.

Week 6: at Wisconsin (L)

It will all come down to this game again for Minnesota, and again, I still like Wisconsin. The Badgers dominated the game last season and get the Golden Gophers at home this year. Winning the West is just what Wisconsin does, and this game will put it in the driver’s seat to do that once again.

Week 7: vs. Northwestern (W)

Northwestern will be improved this year, no doubt. But coming off a loss, PJ Fleck will have the Golden Gophers ready to go.

Week 8: at Nebraska (L)

What will Nebraska look like in Week 8? I’m not sure. If the Huskers are beaten down by their brutal early season schedule, will they quit? If they do make it through intact, I think this will be a very close game. It’s funny, no one would have ranked Morgan ahead of Adrian Martinez entering last season, and no one would rank Martinez ahead of Morgan entering this season. What will we think of these two at the end of 2020? I’m betting on a spirited effort from Nebraska to pull it off.

2020 projection: 6-2 (2nd in B1G West)

Going 6-2 against an all-B1G schedule would be a very good season for Minnesota, especially considering it has been beaten in the recruiting game by the rest of the Big Ten for years. This season could serve as a springboard and solidify Minnesota as a player in the West for years to come.