Saturday Tradition’s annual Crystal Ball series continues today with Minnesota. We’ll finish the B1G West tomorrow. Game-by-game breakdowns of the B1G East’s teams appeared last week.

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Everything seemed to align nicely for 2021 to be Minnesota’s breakthrough season under PJ Fleck.

Led by Mohamed Ibrahim, Minnesota’s rushing attack would be among the most potent in the Big Ten. That’s what happens when you run behind 5 incumbent starters on the offensive line.

The Gophers had the veteran leadership of quarterback Tanner Morgan, who is rumored to have roomed with Bronko Nagurski on his official visit.

And something special was brewing with a defense that was poised to be Minnesota’s best in a generation — or more.

But things went a little sideways.

Ibrahim was lost for the season with a torn Achilles after putting up 164 yards on Ohio State in just 3 quarters in the opener. The Gophers were inexplicably bad in a shocking 14-10 loss to Bowling Green in which Morgan was 5-of-13 for 59 yards.

But Minnesota regained its balance after its 2-2 start. The Gophers had a respectable 8-4 finish that concluded with a win over Wisconsin that reclaimed Paul Bunyan’s Axe after 2 years in Madison. Despite being down to their No. 5 running back on the depth chart at one juncture, the Gophers were a 27-22 loss to Iowa away from reaching the B1G championship game.

It’s the second time in 3 years that Minnesota finished a win short of clinching a title game appearance. This season, the Gophers are intent on getting it.

Why the offensive line is the key to everything

The Gophers had 5 running backs who averaged at least 4.9 yards per carry last season. This is what happens when you have an enormous offensive line that has more than 180 combined career starts under its rather roomy belt.

Minnesota no longer has that.

With 4 of those offensive linemen gone — including 3 all-B1G selections — center John Michael Schmitz is the unquestioned veteran leader of the group. And the Gophers will likely live or die based on how well the 4 players to the sides of Schmitz mesh together.

But this group isn’t totally green. The entire starting interior are seniors.

“These aren’t new guys. These aren’t young guys,” Schmitz pointed out at Big Ten Media Days. “They even have experience starting games. We brought in 2 transfers that will create a lot of competition. I’m so excited for this group.”

Can Kirk Ciarrocca unlock Tanner Morgan?

The guy behind Schmitz is also a riddle.

In 2019, Morgan looked like a quarterback on the rise. A redshirt sophomore, he threw 30 touchdowns and just 7 interceptions while averaging 250 yards per game.

Morgan took a step back in 2020, but in that strange COVID-riddled year, who didn’t? Surely a rebound was in store last season.

Instead, he averaged 150.7 yards per game with 10 TDs and 9 INTs. Had he merely been average, the Gophers would have won the West. He was not.

But there’s optimism that this will be the season he recaptures his 2019 form. Like Ibrahim and Schmitz, Morgan is back for a 6th season. And this one reunites him with offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca, who left for an ill-fated stint at Penn State after the success of ’19.

Neither party has thrived since their parting of ways, so perhaps getting the band together will unlock some beautiful music.

Morgan has one of the more underrated receiving corps in the Big Ten — probably because Morgan’s performance last year made them so difficult to properly rate. But Chris Autman-Bell, Michael Brown-Stephens and Dylan Wright can all go up and get it or break open gains of 40 yards or more.

Why the defense will struggle to replicate last season

The offense will need to be more productive this year, because the defense will be challenged to repeat what it did last season. Because what it did last season was borderline otherworldly — Minnesota was 3rd nationally in total defense behind Wisconsin and Georgia.

In 2020, the Gophers were 72nd in total defense. It was an extraordinary resurgence.

Part of that success was thanks to a stellar defensive line anchored by ends Boye Mafe and Esezi Otomewo. Along with defensive tackle Nyles Pickney, they will need to be replaced.

But if Fleck can find the right guys up front, the Gophers have a decent amount of experience coming back elsewhere. Linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin and safety Tyler Nubin are both all-B1G caliber players. And as a whole, Minnesota returns 2 linebackers and 3 defensive backs.

This won’t be the No. 3 defense in the country this season. But as long as the Gophers can keep it closer to that number than 72nd, they’ll compete for the West title.

Game-by-game predictions

Week 1: vs. New Mexico State (W)

This money game turned into an unexpected grudge match when the Aggies hired former Gophers coach Jerry Kill this offseason. Seriously, there’s real beef here. The thing to watch here is the postgame handshake rather than the actual game. Because Kill even has a history in that department — just last season he got a concussion during a postgame fracas between SMU and TCU.

Week 2: vs. Western Illinois (W)

The Leathernecks were picked dead last in the Missouri Valley Football Conference preseason poll, which was judged by quality of team rather than quality of nickname. This won’t be close.

Week 3: vs. Colorado (W)

The Gophers squashed the Buffaloes 30-0 in Boulder last year. Colorado gained just 63 yards in that game. Something tells me the Buffs aren’t primed to make up that gap in just a season.

Week 4: at Michigan State (W)

Minnesota’s first road game comes in a nice spot with the Spartans returning home from a trip to Washington the previous week. A year ago the Gophers lost to Bowling Green the week after they went out West to face Colorado. A win here will improve Minnesota to 7-3 in its last 10 games against the East.

Week 5: vs. Purdue (L)

Last season the Boilers gained 448 yards against Minnesota’s defense and somehow lost. Ohio State was the only other team to exceed 400 against the Gophers. Purdue will correct its mistakes from a year ago and hand Minnesota its first loss.

Week 6: Bye

Week 7: at Illinois (L)

Bret Bielema has never lost to Minnesota. The Crystal Ball needs to see evidence this is even possible before predicting a Gophers win.

Week 8: at Penn State (W)

The Gophers snap their 2-game losing streak by reprising their role as Penn State’s foil.

Minnesota has taken 2 of the 3 most recent meetings, with Penn State’s only win being a 29-26 overtime decision in 2016. That team was James Franklin’s best, going on to win the Big Ten. And it still needed a last-second field goal in regulation and a Saquon Barkley walk-off touchdown to get past the Gophers.

The Minnesota mojo continues.

Week 9: vs. Rutgers (W)

Minnesota is the program that Rutgers can most realistically aspire to become under Greg Schiano. But the Scarlet Knights aren’t there yet. A low-scoring, high-punting affair that the Gophers will grind out.

Week 10: at Nebraska (L)

With the pressure mounting in Lincoln, Scott Frost’s team picks up a must-win to snap a 3-game losing streak in the series. Look for transfer quarterback Casey Thompson to make his presence felt in the fourth quarter.

Week 11: vs. Northwestern (W)

A year after rolling to a 41-14 win in Evanston, Minnesota’s ground game will again run wild over the Cats. Look for Ibrahim to become the first Gopher to rush for 250 yards in a game since Laurence Maroney in 2005.

Week 12: vs. Iowa (W)

The pig comes back to the Twin Cities.

Iowa’s offense won’t have enough firepower, and Fleck will check a missing item off his resume as Minnesota claims Floyd of Rosedale for the first time since 2014.

Week 13: at Wisconsin (L)

Here we go again. The Gophers head into the final week with a chance to reach the Big Ten championship game. The math is simple — beat Wisconsin, and the deed is done.

But the Gophers haven’t defeated the Badgers in back-to-back seasons since 1994, and that trend will continue as Wisconsin picks up a dramatic win to take the West title.

2022 Projection: 8-4 (5-4), 3rd in B1G West*


In case you haven’t been following along this week, a synopsis:

The Big Ten West is constantly teetering on the brink of madness. And in what is likely to be the division’s penultimate season, the Crystal Ball foresees the wackiest outcome of them all: a 4-way tie for first place.

Wisconsin, Purdue, Iowa and Minnesota will all finish 5-4 in the B1G, with Nebraska tailing at 4-5 after dropping the season finale to the Hawkeyes.

Based on the Big Ten tiebreaking procedure, the division champion is then determined by the team with the best record within the pool of tied teams.

  • Wisconsin (2-1): W vs. Purdue, W vs. Minnesota, L vs. Iowa
  • Purdue (2-1): W vs. Iowa, W vs. Minnesota, L vs. Wisconsin
  • Minnesota (1-2): W vs. Iowa, L vs. Purdue, L vs. Wisconsin
  • Iowa (1-2): W vs. Wisconsin, L vs. Purdue, L vs. Minnesota

Once you’ve done all that, it comes down to the head-to-head matchup between Wisconsin and Purdue. The Badgers have the edge there, and with that comes an appearance in the Big Ten championship game.

For Minnesota fans, that would be the bitterest pill to swallow. For the 3rd time in 4 years, the Gophers would have a path to the title game in the final weekend only to come up short. And the hated Badgers would be the beneficiaries.

Of course, the Crystal Ball could be hazy amidst all this chaos. The margin between the top 5 teams in the West is razor-thin this season. Injuries or other factors could shift the table in anyone’s favor. After last year’s bad luck in that department, it could be that Minnesota is the team that lucks out in 2022.