Cut out the motivational slogans and gadgets, the quick conversation and the sidelines, and PJ Fleck has proven to be a damn good football coach.
Minnesota had a record breaking season in 2019. The Gophers have the opportunity to make a strong statement to start 2020: Michigan visits for the opener on October 24.
The Little Brown Jug has not been contested since 2017. Schools haven’t met in Minneapolis since 2015.
Much has changed in Minnesota since then.
It starts with Fleck, the 39-year-old energy ball. The West Michigan program was stalled when Fleck took over in 2013. Three years later, the Broncos were undefeated and playing in the Cotton Bowl.
Minnesota was spitting the same way before Fleck. Last season, the third in charge of Fleck, the Gophers posted their best record (11-2) in 115 years. They hadn’t done better than 5-3 in the Big Ten in over 45 years, but they went 7-2 last season, a program record for league wins.
Minnesota finished with an Outback Bowl victory over Auburn and was ranked No.10 in the latest AP poll, its best result since 1962.
Tanner Morgan, a junior redshirt, is the unnamed Big Ten quarterback Justin Fields. Morgan threw 30 touchdowns against just seven interceptions last year, going over 3,000 yards in the process.
He’s not a runner and Minnesota will miss top running back Rodney Smith, but the Gophers got some good news on Wednesday: Rashod Bateman is going to dress.
The 2019 Big Ten Receiver of the Year initially opted out of the season before deciding he wanted to return. The NCAA approved his waiver.
For a Michigan team whose top cornerback has retired, Bateman will provide a major test from the start.
On the other side of the ball, Minnesota’s total defense ranked 10th in the nation last season, one spot ahead of Michigan. However, seven of the top eight tackles have left. Former Wolverine Benjamin St-Juste runs an experienced high school.
Minnesota was in 19th place in the preseason poll before the Big Ten teams were left out. With the conference set to play again, that policy has changed, but the Gophers did not receive enough votes last week to place in the top 25. That could change again by the Michigan game.
The first odds have this match as a draw. How important will the home court advantage be to Minnesota, or any Big Ten team, in a season without fans?
The answer, at the very least: less than in the past.
That should help Michigan with its first starting quarterback and several new plays along the offensive line. For the Wolverines, Joe Milton’s performance on October 24 will not only help determine the outcome of the opener, but will shape Michigan’s entire season.
The Little Brown Jug is currently in Ann Arbor, Michigan having won the aforementioned two games. He will be heading to Minnesota in a few weeks. Will it stay there, picked up from the visitor sideline after visitors have left, for social distancing purposes, before being disinfected?
Or will he return to Michigan, as he has always done since 1977? (That’s right, Michigan has won 32 of the last 35 games, including the last 16 at Minnesota.)
He’ll probably just be happy to be out of the house.
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