Yesterday we talked Illinois with The Champaign Room. Today it is time to hit on this week’s preview subject, the Minnesota Golden Gophers with Tom from The Daily Gopher.
T-Mill: Fleck vs. Brohm seems like a natural rivalry since they both came in the league at the same time with similar bonafides. How does your side see it?
Tom: In this particular case, I’m not sure I can speak for my entire side (happy to do that with the other 5 questions). As I see it, I barely even noticed that there seems to be even more than just a rivalry here. There seems to be some genuine animosity, to some degree. Why that is or where that came from? I have no idea, but there have been some icy moments. Perhaps it stems from the recruiting trail? But from this side, it doesn’t feel like a very strong rivalry between the two teams. Brohm had a really strong initial season (including a win over Fleck and the Gophers), but followed that up with 3 straight losing seasons (including 3 losses to Fleck and the Gophers). I’m not familiar enough with what Purdue is returning to know how strong they may be this year, other than Vegas win totals around +/- 5, but I am expecting a Gopher win at Ross-Ade Stadium in October.
T-Mill: Minnesota took a step back last year after an excellent 2019, but returns a bunch. Is this a full bounceback year?
Tom: I have a strong degree of confidence in this 2021 team. Last year was going to be one with a lot of question marks on defense after they lost 7 starters on that side of the ball, 4 of them to the NFL. There were question marks and they really were not answered very well. You can see that they started playing out really quite awful, giving up 104 in 2 games to Michigan and Maryland (both of whom turned out to be not that great). But things certainly improved throughout the season, especially defensively. Which gives me quiet confidence that the 2021 team will be very good again. The 2020 season was odd, but those 7 games were vital for getting the defense a ton of experience. And I haven’t even mentioned how Mohamed Ibrahim broke out offensively to win the Big Ten RB of the Year. There are a lot of reasons why Gopher fans can have some confidence heading into 2021.
T-Mill: Mo Ibrahim and Tanner Morgan are both excellent pieces to build around, but how does the passing game improve without Bateman?
Tom: To be honest it is Ibrahim who is the key to the passing game. Believe it or not the Gophers run the ball more than most of the Big Ten. They had the 2nd highest % of run plays last year at almost 62% in 2020, and it was even higher in 2019. Bateman, and Tyler Johnson in 2019, were ideal receivers who ran great routes to be open on quick play-action. The questions about who becomes the next reliable possession or big-play receiver are valid. Chris Autman-Bell is the most likely candidate and will be Morgan’s top target, at least to start the year. You may recall his 129 yards on 5 catches against Purdue last year. Daniel Jackson was a true freshman last year who has shown plenty of promise. And finally there is a lot of excitement around Dylan Wright, a former 4-star who transferred to Minnesota from Texas A&M (SEC!). Certain programs and coaching staffs begin to earn reputations for producing talent in certain position groups. Wisconsin offensive line and running backs, Purdue quarterbacks, Penn State linebackers (going back a decade or two), etc. PJ Fleck and WRs coach Matt Simon are earning a reputation for doing very well with wide receivers. So fans of the Minnesota program have confidence that this unit will always be strong. They recruit it heavily and seem to be adept at coaching up the position.
T-Mill: The defense struggled at times last year. What is the big fix?
Tom: The fix for the 2021 defense is the repetitions from 2020. There is plenty of talent on this side of the ball to be a solid defense, much like the 2019 team. The 2021 Gopher defense is not likely to be a top 4 unit in the Big Ten, but it can certainly be good enough to complement the offense and make enough stops to be top half. Last year, so much of the problem was individual players trying to do too much and then getting themselves out of position, mostly at linebacker and safety. So...for a few key guys, the reps last year and learning to be the leaders on that side of the ball after a group of talented and experienced guys left is hopefully all that was needed. The addition of a couple transfers should also help. Defensive line should be a real strength for this year’s group along with the starting corners.
T-Mill: What is a reasonable expectation for 2021?
Tom: Sometimes I get a good chuckle when I read what other writers are predicting for their team’s upcoming season. Like Nebraska’s Corn Nation predicting 8-1 for his team last year. So typically I’m pretty tempered when I am responding to questions that’ll be posted on a rival’s blog. And even if I’m often slightly optimistic with my season outlook, this year I am publically overly enthusiastic in my season predictions. I feel like this team could be very similar to the 2019 team that was one bad quarter at Iowa from winning the West. I’m not predicting they will, but this is going to be a very good team. The top 6 offensive linemen return, all with extensive experience and all of them earned All-Big Ten (even if honorable mention) at some point in their careers. Tanner Morgan and Ibrahim are known quantities who are very talented. The defensive line is going to be one of the best in the West and then some questions have to be answered on the back-end, but I’m confident that they will be fine. In my dream scenario, last year was a learning year and 2021 is when the defense comes together to show marked improvement. This team will not be good enough to take any game for granted, but I think it will end up being in mix for winning the West till the very end.
T-Mill: Can we have an exorcism at The Barn before Purdue is leading the Big Ten by 2 games and ranked in the top 5 when Jaden Ivey breaks his wrist there on February 25th?
Tom: This year, I suggest just sending the 5 scholarship players who see the least amount of playing time plus your walk-ons. They should still beat the Gophers by double-digits. Notice my realism kicks into high gear for basketball. I’m not completely delusional.