Preseason Top 25: No. 16 Minnesota riding experience in hopes of taking the next step in Big Ten West

Minnesota was the darling of the first two-plus months of the 2019 season, posting a 9-0 record before falling to Iowa on Nov. 16. It was the program’s first double-digit win season since 2003, and the first time it finished in the top 10 since 1962. So, what will fourth-year coach P.J. Fleck do for an encore?

The Golden Gophers return an experienced roster led by redshirt junior quarterback Tanner Morgan, wide receiver Rashod Bateman and an experienced secondary that should be the strength of the defense. Morgan’s success through the air last season should be the foundation of an explosive offense that took the Big Ten West by storm a year ago.

Will the experience get Minnesota over the top and into the Big Ten Championship Game for the first time since the divisional split? Let’s break down the outlook for the 2020 Golden Gophers.

2019 rewind

Final ranking: No. 10 | Achievements: Won Outback Bowl over Auburn 31-24

Minnesota entered the final weekend of the regular season with College Football Playoff hopes intact and the Big Ten West title on the line vs. Wisconsin. The Gophers fell 38-17 to the Badgers, who not only took the division title but brought Paul Bunyan’s Axe with them back to Madison. Despite that, Fleck’s team took another step forward by earning its second straight bowl appearance.

Key departures

WR Tyler Johnson: The star wideout led the Golden Gophers with 86 catches for 1,318 yards and 13 touchdowns. His absence will put a ton of pressure on Bateman, who will demand attention on the outside.

RB Rodney Smith: The senior took a ton of pressure off of Morgan last season with 1,163 and eight touchdowns.

DB Antoine Winfield, Jr.: The second-round draft pick had seven interceptions and 88 tackles last season en route to being named a consensus All American. His absence will leave a glaring hole in an otherwise experienced secondary.

Linebackers galore: Kamal Martin, Carter Coughlin and Thomas Barber were key pieces to the Golden Gophers defensive puzzle last season.

Who’s back?

QB Tanner Morgan: The rising junior went from fighting for the starting job to budding superstar last season when he threw for 3,253 yards and 30 touchdowns in his first full season as the starting quarterback.

WR Rashod Bateman: The 6-foot-2, 210-pounder had 60 catches for 1,219 yards and 11 touchdowns last season. He’ll have the added responsibility of being the unquestioned No. 1 target for Morgan now that Johnson has moved on to the NFL.

Beef up front: The Golden Gophers will return three All-Big Ten honorable mention offensive linemen in Curtis Dunlap Jr., Connor Olsen, Daniel Faalele and Sam Schlueter. Running back Mohamed Ibrahim, the presumed starter, will have plenty of experience to help him pick up right where Smith left off.

DB Coney Durr: The junior from Baton Rouge picked off one pass, had 33 tackles and broke up 10 passes in a stellar junior season.

Fresh faces

Offensive coordinator Mike Sanford, Jr.: Sanford was the head coach at Western Kentucky from 2017-18, where he posted a 9-16 record. He spent last season as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Utah State, helping quarterback Jordan Love become a first-round draft pick.

Cornerbacks coach Paul Haynes: The former head coach at Kent State (2013-17) spent the last two seasons coaching defensive backs at Michigan State. He’ll provide even more experience for Fleck to fall back on. After all, it’s never a bad thing to have former head coaches on staff.

RB Ky Thomas: The Topeka, Kansas, native was one of the centerpieces of Minnesota’s 2020 signing class, enrolled early and got three practices under his belt before the unexpected shutdown. At 5-foot-11 and 205 pounds, he could take pressure off of Ibrahim in the Gophers backfield.

Critical games

Week 3 vs. Iowa — Sept. 18: The Golden Gophers will get their first big test under the lights in a Friday night home tilt. It’ll be a revenge game against a Hawkeyes team that handed them their first loss of the 2019 season and a tone-setter in the race for the Big Ten West title.

Week 6 at Wisconsin — Oct. 10: The battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe served as the de facto division title game at the end of last season and will be a massive game in Madison in the middle of this season. The winner of this one will likely be one of the division frontrunners heading into the stretch run.

Week 7 vs. Michigan — Oct. 17: This will be a tough cross-division test one week after one of the biggest games of Minnesota’s season. The Wolverines have holes to fill but have plenty of talent and time to be cranked up by mid-season.

Week 13 at Nebraska — Nov. 27: This Black Friday showdown will be one of the biggest games of the final weekend of the regular season. The battle between Cornhuskers quarterback Adrian Martinez and the Golden Gophers secondary will be a nice post-Thanksgiving treat.

2020 outlook

Morgan is out to prove that he is one of the best quarterbacks in the nation and a future NFL star, and has plenty of firepower to do it. His success, coupled with Fleck’s proven ability to build winners, should keep the Gophers in the national picture for three full months. They don’t draw Ohio State or Penn State out of the East, and their toughest out-of-conference game is in Week 4 at home vs. BYU. The combination of a manageable schedule, star players returning and a coaching staff that is hitting its stride should make the Golden Gophers the favorite in the Big Ten West going into the season. Could this be the year they finally make the Big Ten Championship Game? It should be the expectation.

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