The Gophers developed into a tough out in the Big Ten West under Jerry Kill, a pesky team that would be in the division race deeper than most projected. P.J. Fleck’s job is to raise that ceiling. He has 13 total starters back, so there are some holes, but Minnesota is coming off a nine-win season.
Fleck’s Western Michigan teams succeeded with a down-field passing attack and its fair to ask if the Gophers have the personnel to manage it in year one. Connor Rhoda and Demry Croft entered the offseason still battling for the quarterback spot and go-to receiver needs to emerge following the departure of Drew Wolitarsky. The running game, however, is in good shape. Running backs Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks return after combining for more than 1,800 yards last season. If the Gophers can win while keeping it on the ground, Fleck will have no problem adjusting.
Former Arkansas defensive coordinator Robb Smith is now in Minneapolis and his best Razorback defenses stopped the run first and foremost. Minnesota was solid in that aspect a year ago, ranking fourth in the Big Ten — where a lot of teams are good at stopping the run — in adjusted yards per play. There are two big holes, however, on the defensive line, which could have an effect on the Gophers’ pass defense. Pressuring the passer was a big part of Minnesota’s wins last year, but there’s reason to believe the Gophers take a step back on that front in 2017.
The Gophers open with Buffalo, but then comes a tricky trip to Corvallis, Ore., followed by a tougher-than-it-looks game against Middle Tennessee. The East draw isn’t so bad with Michigan, Michigan State and Maryland on the slate, and Minnesota gets key division games against Wisconsin and Nebraska at home in November. It’s not the most likely outcome, but if the Gophers get a little Fleck bump there’s a path to a division title here.
It would be business as usual at Minnesota based only on what the Gophers return, but Fleck’s arrival may trump all of that. If his slogans and enthusiasm take right away, Minnesota has the potential to surprise some people and has the schedule to do it, too. The Oregon State game will be an interesting early read on the Gophers. Grab a win there and Minnesota could start out 7-0 without much trouble and if that happens, given how much people already respect Fleck, watch out. Even if that exact scenario doesn’t play out, the Fleck hire looks like a home run and that’s enough to have the Gophers trending slightly UP.