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What to expect when P.J. Fleck, Minnesota visit the Big House

The Little Brown Jug has bounced back and forth the last few meetings. Michigan wants a permanent home in Ann Arbor.

Michigan v Minnesota Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

In 2014, Minnesota marched into Ann Arbor and took the Little Brown Jug, with sheer force, from a struggling Michigan team. The Gophers claimed a 30-14 victory, their first in seven tries in the series.

The Michigan fanbase reeled. It wasn't even about the poor performance on the field. The biggest storyline out of the Wolverine locker room was Brady Hoke's decision to leave Shane Morris in the game after a blow to the head.

Things looked bad.

A year later, under new coach Jim Harbaugh, Michigan was a different team. They had leadership. Their talent was developing. They learned how to win.

Heading to Minneapolis, Michigan was poised to continue its newfound routine of winning. Minnesota, on the other hand, was motivated by their head coach, Jerry Kill, who was in the hospital due to health issues.

It was a cold night in 2015 and the stage was set for a Halloween upset.

Michigan went ahead early, but Minnesota fought back to take a halftime lead. Then, in the second half with Michigan starting quarterback Jake Rudock injured, the Gophers pulled ahead, 26-21. In the fourth quarter, then-backup Wilton Speight showed his first glimpse of promise as he led the Wolverines down the field and converted for a go-ahead touchdown.

But Minnesota wasn't done. With less than a minute to play, the Gophers hurried down the field and scored the game-winning touchdown — only it was reviewed and called back. On the final play of the game, from the one yard line, the Michigan defensive line stuffed Mitch Leidner's QB sneak as time expired.

Michigan escaped. It was the grittiest play of the season.

Now the Gophers come back to Ann Arbor with some grit of their own, this time with a new coach and a simple mission: reclaim the trophy they earned during their last visit to Michigan Stadium.

"What's become of the Little Brown Jug rivalry?"

The Little Brown Jug is the oldest trophy in college football. It's nothing fancy, but it's certainly iconic. (Maybe closer to the actual game we'll get into the history behind it, but for now we'll just focus on the rivalry.)

Without the Jug, however, it would be hard to argue that this is a rivalry game at all.

Overall in the series Michigan holds a 74-25-3 advantage, and in the last 44 meetings the Wolverines have gone 40-4.

How dominant has this rivalry been in Michigan's favor? Even the three-win Rich Rod team of 2008 beat the Gophers.

Michigan v Minnesota Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Wolverine fans, though, would be weary of pretending this is a runaway for the Maize and Blue. Despite Michigan winning six meetings in a row by at least two touchdowns from 2006 to 2013, Minnesota came into the Big House and thumped the Wolverines in 2014 and then took Michigan down to the final play in 2015. In 2016, when the rivalry took a short break, the Gophers won nine games.

In 2017, the Jug's back on the line.

"What does P.J. Fleck bring to Minnesota?"

P.J. Fleck will be the fourth first-year head coach that Michigan faces in its first nine games of 2017.

On one hand, those situations often mean a program was struggling last season or will be going through a system transition this season — both good things for Michigan. On the other hand, it means you can't quite know entirely what to expect.

Here's what we can expect from Fleck: a ton of energy and quickly developing talent.

Western Michigan v Northwestern Photo by David Banks/Getty Images

You don't often find yourself at Big Ten schools like Minnesota without some serious success at a previous coaching stop. In his first stint as a head coach, all Fleck did was take lowly Western Michigan and put it on the college football map. After going 22-27 in the four seasons before Fleck's arrival, he led the Broncos to a 30-22 mark in his four years in Kalamazoo.

Last season, he catapulted the program to an undefeated regular season, a New Years Six berth and a No. 15 final national ranking. His star wide receiver, Corey Davis, was taken 5th overall in this year's NFL Draft, and two other Broncos were also selected.

And now, Fleck is bringing all of that to Minneapolis.

Reason to fear? Not quite. But you better believe this Minnesota squad will be surging in the right direction very quickly.

"Any Gophers we should keep our eye on?"

The big story for the Gophers heading into the season, other than the new coaching staff, will be the quarterback competition. Mitch Leidner is gone, and it appears to be a three-way battle between Conor Rhoda, Demry Croft and Seth Green — none of whom have much collegiate experience.

That’s where this stable of running backs comes in. Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks, two smaller yet shifty guys, will lead the way. Don’t be surprised to see senior Kobe KcCrary, a bruiser at 6-1 and 235 pounds, get his share of the carries as well.

At receiver, keep your eye on two guys in particular — a 6-5 junior named Rashad Still and 6-2 sophomore Tyler Johnson. Both of these guys have proven they can compete with the conference’s best, and whoever wins the QB job will depend on them for some serious support.

There’s still some talent on the offensive side of the ball for Minnesota, and if Fleck can keep this unit improving they could be a powerful machine by late season.

On the defensive side of the ball they have a lot of great pieces, though the line is understaffed. Last year, they resorted to moving some linebacker types of players to the weak side to offer pass rush capability, and time will tell how the coaching staff will utilize this group.

There will be some experience coming back at linebacker — with guys like Cody Poock, Jonathan Celestin and Thomas Barber — though this unit is nothing to write home about.

The secondary, however, has some playmakers, starting with Duke McGhee — a mean, athletic safety who likes to be in the action. Flanking the defense will be two exciting corners in Antonio Shenault and Kiondre Thomas. This group could show some potential depth.

Overall, this defense has some impressive playmakers and they’ll prove to be a solid unit again this season. Will they slow down the Michigan offense? I expect the Wolverines to be firing on all cylinders by this point in the season, so barring injuries, not likely too much.

"Who takes the Jug home in 2017?"

Minnesota is a team that cannot be overlooked in 2017. They are coming off a nine-win campaign, and though they have some key position vacancies to fill, I have confidence that Fleck and Co. will get this team clicking sooner rather than later.

Does that mean they can come into the Big House and steal one from the home team? Not so fast. Minnesota put up a heck of a fight in 2015 and they showed moments of being able to compete with top programs in 2016, but Jim Harbaugh has Michigan on a trajectory that the Gophers cannot eclipse — even with a relatively inexperienced team.

The Wolverines will run all over Minnesota in this one and show off some of their young receivers. Michigan wins easily, 34-14.

Sometimes, though, teams just get lucky.