Note: This piece ran in our preseason preview series a few weeks back. Given the fact there has not been a change in much info, we’ve decided to re-share. Enjoy!
Maize n Brew teamed up with the Big Ten team sites here at SB Nation for a preview of each of the football programs in the conference to help us look ahead to the 2020 season. Monday’s comes in the form of a look at the Minnesota Golden Gophers, who will host the Michigan Wolverines in the first week of the season on Oct. 24.
Overview of the 2020 Golden Gophers
“The Gophers hope to build on last year’s historic 11-2 season. Whether they can do that is a completely open question, both because of COVID and because of the key players they lost. Thankfully, that list no longer includes wide receiver Rashod Bateman. Generally I think expectations for the Gophers are high, but not quite as high as you might think given last season.
“An honest look at this team suggests that a slight step back was probable even before COVID. The team will be breaking in a new offensive coordinator, the best wide receiver in program history in Tyler Johnson graduated and First Team All-American safety Antoine Winfield Jr. is making a massive impact for Tampa Bay as an NFL rookie.
“Quarterback Tanner Morgan is back after a record-setting season. There’s nothing to indicate that he’ll do anything but continue to play at a high level. The running backs should be fine and the offensive line has experience, just not depth. Assuming the offense Minnesota runs doesn’t change too much, the pieces are still there to score a lot of points. Depth is a concern at wide receiver, even with Bateman back, but the talent at that position (and P.J. Fleck’s staff history with developing young wide receivers) should even that out. An even bigger concern for depth is the offensive line. The starting five has no major concerns, but an injury or regression from any of them leaves a lot of questions. That’s not to say there isn’t talent behind the starters, it’s just unproven and can’t be counted upon yet.
“The bigger questions probably lie on the defensive side of the ball. As noted, the team’s all-everything defensive leader (Winfield) is gone. So is Carter Coughlin, who proved to be extremely disruptive as a pass rusher last season despite drawing double teams and holds all season long. The defensive line lost two other solid starters in Winston DeLattiboudere and Sam Renner. Linebacker depth is a concern following the loss of Kamal Martin to the NFL and Braelen Oliver to a spring practice injury that should keep him out most potentially of 2020. The secondary has a strong pair of corners in Durr and St. Juste, but safety will remain a question mark until someone proves they can adequately replace Winfield.
“As noted above, offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca has moved on to Penn State but otherwise the coaching staff remains intact. P.J. Fleck is as high energy as ever and seems to have done a good job of handling COVID and the tumult it’s caused for the Big Ten (unlike two high profile peers I could name). He’ll continue to annoy opposing fan bases (which is pure entertainment to Gopher fans) and after 2019 he’s not as easy to dismiss on style alone.
“The schedule is favorable enough. The Gophers miss Penn State and Ohio State during the eight currently scheduled games. Michigan is the team’s opener, but they are at home. Maryland is the other crossover game which is a win for Minnesota. Until proven otherwise Wisconsin remains the team to beat in the West. That remains the Gophers’ hardest test and it’s on the road. None of the other road trips (Maryland, Illinois, or Nebraska) are overly worrisome on paper. That said, this is a COVID season. Every single team in the B1G could put up a loss in any game they play thanks to all the weirdness that could ensue.”
Minnesota’s key departures
Tyler Johnson (WR), Antoine Winfield Jr. (DB), Carter Coughlin (DL), Rodney Smith (RB), Kamal Martin (LB), Winston DeLattiboudere (DL), Thomas Barber (LB), Sam Renner (DL), Demetrius Douglas (WR)
Minnesota’s key returnees
Tanner Morgan (QB), Rashod Bateman (WR), Chris Autman-Bell (WR), Mohamed Ibrahim (RB), Seth Green (Wildcat QB/WR), the entire offensive line, Micah Dew-Treadway (DL), Mariano Sori-Marin (LB), Benjamin St.-Juste (DB), Coney Durr (DB)
True freshmen or transfers that could make an instant impact
Douglas Emilien (WR), Daniel Jackson (WR)
What’s your team’s biggest strength?
“The offense, particularly the passing connection of Tanner Morgan and Rashod Bateman.”
What’s your team’s biggest weakness?
How does your fanbase feel about your coach and his staff?
Who is your team’s MVP this season and why?
“There’s no way I can put down anyone besides Rashod Bateman. The kid is too talented and too much of the offense will rely on him. Tanner Morgan is a close second.”
Predict your team’s record, its best win, and a potential surprise loss.
6-2 or 7-1 feels right, with outside chances that the Gophers go either 5-3 or 8-0. The best win will be over Wisconsin, because I will always predict a win over Wisconsin on principle. If I had to peg a surprise loss I’d go with Purdue.
What else should we know about your team this year?
[Insert your favorite P.J. Fleck-ism here.]