Minnesota Football Stadium
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Buy or Sell: 2020 Minnesota Gophers Football

July 17, 2020

In the coming weeks, Brandon Vogel and Derek Peterson are running through Big Ten programs for a “Buy or Sell” kind of opponent preview. We’ll keep the list here for those just jumping in and want to recap:

Brandon Derek
Indiana Hoosiers Buy Sell
Maryland Terrapins Sell Sell
Michigan Wolverines Buy Sell
Michigan State Spartans Sell Sell
Ohio State Buckeyes Sell Buy
Penn State Nittany Lions Buy Buy
Rutgers Scarlet Knights Buy Buy
Illinois Fighting Illini Sell Sell
Iowa Hawkeyes Sell Sell

Minnesota came from seemingly out of nowhere in coach PJ Fleck’s third year at the helm. A wealth of returning production and a manageable schedule made the Gophers darlings of the offseason, but it was what became legitimately one of the best offenses in the conference that propelled Minnesota to an 11-2 record. The Gophers started 9-0, beat Penn State in a nationally televised showdown, and enjoyed their best season since the 1940s. But with offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca off to Penn State and production departing from the defense, Fleck and Minnesota will be fighting to prove they have staying power. Buying or selling Minnesota in 2020?

 Brandon Vogel: Sell

The rise is damn hard. Staying near the top might be even harder. Such is the challenge facing Minnesota in 2020. From the outside, the Gophers appear to be building a culture to keep them close to 2019’s heights. They won’t always reach double-digit wins, but they’ll more often than not have that potential as long as Fleck is there. This season, however, presents some significant challenges that could leave Minnesota slightly off of last year’s pace. There are pretty heavy losses in the run game. The Gophers still have one of the best receivers in the country (see below), but also lost one. Morgan was insanely good last year, can he be that again while breaking in a few new weapons at the skill positions? Oh, and Kirk Ciarrocca is now coordinating Penn State’s offense, not Minnesota’s. The losses on defense are even heavier with less than 40% returning in tackles, tackles for loss and passes defended. That is the classic profile of a unit poised for a step back, and there are just enough minor questions on offense for me to view simply outscoring teams as a pretty shaky path forward. The Gophers were 6-1 in one-score games a year ago. Great seasons are often like that. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Minnesota has even more close ones in 2020. Last year, the Gophers outscored teams by an average of 12 points per game but I don’t see the offense or defense hitting the same numbers they did a year ago. If it comes down to a differential of around eight points, you’re typically looking at an eight-win team. Minnesota will remain a really tough out—the foundation here is solid and the talent level is, frankly, impressive—but this has the feeling of a slight step back. A tiny one, really, given the production lost. But sometimes you have to fall back a little bit to push the ceiling even higher. The Gophers probably aren’t going away any time soon.

Derek Peterson: Buy

I think there’s a segment of the college football-viewing public that views Minnesota as a flash-in-the-pan kind of team. Honestly, I think how you feel about the Gophers’ program right now has a lot to do with how you feel about head coach PJ Fleck. Some think he’s fake and over-the-top. Ergo, 2019 was a fluke and not an arrival. I am not those people; I like what Fleck has built. He has the key piece: a quick-blinking (sorry) quarterback in Tanner Morgan who gets the ball where it needs to be when it needs to be there and doesn’t make many mistakes. Morgan is good on the run, good in play-action, and he operated the way Fleck wanted him too well enough early on for Fleck to give him the green light to just start taking his shots deep. Those were, more often than not, successful plays thanks to a duo of incredibly talented wideouts. Tyler Johnson, off to the NFL, led the Gophers with 1,318 yards and 13 touchdowns, while Rashod Bateman produced a 1,219-yard, 11-score campaign opposite Johnson. The No. 1 and No. 2 receivers in the Big Ten in terms of yardage. Bateman averaged 20 a catch, the eighth-best mark in the country and the best by a qualifying Gopher since 2014. Minnesota had the sixth-most-efficient passing game and the fifth-most explosive. With slants and quick-hitters baked into Fleck’s strategy, if he’s got the right guy behind center, the efficiency part feels like it’s by-design, with the explosiveness a by-product if the right guys are out wide. Bateman’s back. And Chris Autman-Bell flashed enough as a No. 3 option in 2019 to provide optimism he can become Bateman’s Robin. Plus, all five starters from last year’s line return. Minnesota should have the goods to keep the offense soaring. Maybe 11-2 isn’t in the cards—the Big Ten West should be better top to bottom and Minnesota was a “by the skin of its teeth” kind of team last year already—but I’m absolutely buying the Gophers as a team to contend for the West’s crown once again. Unless Spencer Petras at Iowa is a baller, there aren’t many on paper right now who look like they can keep pace offensively with what the Gophers can do. Wisconsin is in somewhat uncharted waters replacing an all-conference running back and starters on the line, and the rest of the division is playing catch-up. I’m worried about the defense having lost multi-year guys at every level, but you only gotta outscore the opponent by one point to win. And Minnesota’s crossover games this season are Maryland away, Michigan at home and Michigan State on the road. Iowa and Nebraska both play Ohio State and Penn State, and Wisconsin has a trip to Ann Arbor and a neutral site game against Notre Dame the two weeks prior to playing the Gophers.

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