2020 Gopher football preview
October 7, 2020
University of Minnesota students have worked hard to find any shred of a silver lining during a somber year, and they finally got one when the Big Ten announced that the fall football season would begin October 24th.
After an 11-2 season in 2019 which culminated in an Outback Bowl victory over Auburn, Minnesota begins its 2020 campaign with higher expectations than any Gopher football team in recent memory. Head Coach P.J. Fleck returns the majority of his key players from last season, especially on the offensive side of the ball.
Despite the loss of wide receiver Tyler Johnson to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, fans should expect little to no drop-off from the Minnesota offense. Redshirt junior quarterback Tanner Morgan and every offensive lineman who saw significant playing time in 2019 is set to line up once again for the Gophers along with starting receiver Chris Autman-Bell.
The Gophers received a massive boost when the NCAA cleared Rashod Bateman to play in the 2020 season after the star receiver previously opted out to focus on preparing for the NFL Draft. Previously, some doubt existed that the reigning Big Ten Receiver of the Year would be allowed to return, but in the end, Bateman will line up for the Gophers for his junior year.
Gopher quarterback Tanner Morgan made it clear that he’s happy to have Bateman back in the fold, “He’s come to work every single day ready to get better, ready to be locked in and be a good leader… It’s great to have him back in the locker room, see his face, see him smiling.”
Projected starting running back Mohamed Ibrahim also sounded relieved that the star wideout was allowed to return. “I didn’t think it was a possibility,” said Ibrahim… “So just understanding that he can come back, that was a big boost to the whole team.”
While Bateman’s return ensures a potent offensive Gopher attack, the team’s defense is a bit more of a question mark, as only four out of the eleven starters on the 2019 team return this fall. The biggest holes Minnesota has to fill are at the safety and linebacker positions following the loss of Antoine Winfield Jr. to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Kamal Martin to the Green Bay Packers, and Carter Coughlin to the New York Giants.
For Minnesota to seriously contend for the Big Ten West crown and a potential Rose Bowl bid, the team’s more inexperienced reserves from previous seasons and incoming freshmen will have to step up. Cornerbacks Benjamin St.-Juste and Coney Durr are two of the four returning starters and will anchor the Gopher’s secondary.
The Gophers open their season on October 24th against the Michigan Wolverines at home in a largely-empty TCF Bank Stadium. They then play two straight road games against the Maryland Terrapins and the Illinois Fighting Illini. The Floyd of Rosedale will be awarded to the winner of the Gopher’s November 14th matchup at home against Iowa.
After another home game against Purdue, Minnesota travels to Madison in hopes of winning back Paul Bunyan’s Axe from the Wisconsin Badgers. The Gophers have a fairly gentle end to their schedule, as their last two games (home against Northwestern and at Nebraska) are likely victories.
The results of this season will say a lot about P.J. Fleck and the culture that he has firmly established in his Gopher football program. Since his first year as head coach in 2017, the team has seen sustained improvement but has never faced the pre-season expectation of being a nationally competitive team.
If Minnesota flounders this year, the state’s fanbase, already reeling from recent disappointments by the Timberwolves and Twins, will quickly fall back into their patented “here we go again” pessimism. However, should the Gophers rise to occasion and put together another strong run at a Big Ten Championship, Coach Fleck will find himself with an army of loyal fans that will back him no matter what happens in the years to come.
Some fans root for Minnesota because they were born in the state and like going to the games. Some root for the team just because they want to see the team prevail over rivals like Wisconsin and Iowa. But this year, the team finds itself with a significant amount of support from those like yours truly, who believe that the Gophers have a chance to row the boat all the way to Pasadena.