Minnesota football has been through the blender over the past couple of seasons, from head coach Jerry Kill stepping down for health reasons to the sexual assault scandal that involved 10 players and led to the firing of new head coach Tracy Claeys. The latest head coach is P.J. Fleck, hailing from Western Michigan, who was looked to as a turning point for both the team’s success on the field and discipline off it.
Fleck had been given a team in need of a new identity before, stepping into a Mustangs team who was fresh off a 4-8 season. His first year, he started off with a fresh recruiting class, but had a rough transition that only saw one win and a 114th ranking in total offense at 17.2 points per game. But with every class he brought in and developed, the team grew leaps and bounds. In his second and third campaigns, Fleck led the team to a pair of 8-5 seasons. His offensive numbers jumped to 38th in the second year with 33.8 points per game and 20th the next year with a 36-point average. There was even more improvement in the fourth season, with the team going 13-1 and averaging 41 points to rank 12th.
Now he is set up in a system with better recruiting and a better defense to build on.
With Fleck’s vibrant personality and already a wave of his recruits coming in, the hype around Gophers football is at an all-time high. Some people want to pull back and point to the first season of Fleck’s tenure as a reason to expect a rough start. However, these are four reasons why it is not out of the question to expect a winning season from the newly-minted head coach:
- This will be a down year for the Big Ten conference. The Power 5 conference that boasts some of the grittiest trench football in college is watching Wisconsin rebound while Michigan and Ohio State suffer massive hits to their starting core for the second season running. Michigan State is still reeling from the loss they took to Alabama in the college football playoff. Meanwhile, Nebraska is still finding itself after what seems like 40 years in the wilderness. Outside of Minnesota, the Big Ten teams fit in one of the following tiers: a shaky top level team or the bottom of the barrel, or you can roll with the Gophers — the only real middle of the road team.
- The defense that Fleck is inheriting a better defense than when he stepped in at Western Michigan. The defense he took over gave up 396 yards per game, along with 29.7 points. The Gophers defense ranked 20th last year, only giving up 22.9 points per game. The front seven for the team was built pre-Fleck and will give him a solid base as he recreates the offense.
- Fleck is already a great recruiter. Now he’s is in a Power 5, Division I school to draw in recruits. The fallout for Western Michigan was immediate. Nine recruits flipped their commitment from the Broncos to Gophers after Fleck was announced as the head coach, including three-star quarterback Tanner Morgan. This means this year Fleck is already getting some of his guys to develop and next season he will have the Big Ten name behind his coaching resume to bring in more talent.
- Fleck is an offensive guy, something the Gophers have desperately needed to make more of a priority. The two staples of most Big Ten teams are a solid front seven paired with a grinder at running back. The running back duo of freshman Shannon Brooks and junior Rodney Smith combined for 1,808 yards and 23 touchdowns while averaging nearly 5.0 yards per carry. With Fleck in place, he can help take this offense to the next level and still maintain his defensive core.
While it is all speculation before any games have been played, the Gophers needed a culture change and a remodeled identity, which is what they went out and got. The first three games are against Buffalo, Oregon State and Middle Tennessee, giving the squad plenty of time to gel before they hit conference play. There is no reason the Gophers should fall short of eight or nine wins next season.