College Football World is Sleeping on 2023 Gophers

Photo: Gopher Sports

The 2023 Preseason Associated Press Media poll released on Monday and the Minnesota Gophers received 6 total votes, good for 38th in the country and 3rd in the Big Ten West behind both Wisconsin (19th – 386 votes) and Iowa (25th – 131 votes). Illinois also received 3 votes.

Minnesota’s No. 38 ranking won’t create a lot of headlines and the Gophers won’t appear on many AP preseason snub lists, especially when the USA Today Coaches Poll ranked them No. 40 a week earlier.

Doubts surrounding 2023 Gophers start on offense

There is sound reasoning behind the doubt being cast on this 2023 Gopher squad. To start, it’s worth remembering that the safe bet in the Big Ten West, for a decade since regional divisions were created, has been Wisconsin finishing in 1st and Iowa in 2nd. Even with others winning each of the last three years, it’s difficult to break old habits.

And remember, hundreds of media members vote in the AP Poll and most of them, both at the national and regional levels, cannot possibly understand or comprehend the changes they’ll see from the Gopher offense this season. In fact, some will be shocked at how often PJ Fleck and his co-offensive coordinators will rely on the right arm and decision-making skills of redshirt sophomore QB, Athan Kaliakmanis.

Up until now, Fleck has shown he knows one way to oversee an offense. Run the football and control the clock. That’s what he’s been known for as a head coach, even back to his Western Michigan days. So, when one of the best running backs in school history, Mohamed Ibrahim, leaves after four legendary seasons and there’s no comparable replacement, questions are to be expected.

And if 2023 Gopher cynics check on QB Athan Kaliakmanis’ career boxscore, for more context on what to expect this year, they’ll only become more emboldened. Athan has thrown more interceptions (4) than touchdowns (3) in his only 5 starts, all of which came last season.

No more Mo, no more Tanner. Sophomore QB with an underwhelming handful of starts already under his belt taking over. Anyone without a microscope on Dinkytown would expect regression… and that’s before we get to the schedule.

They appear to have a VERY scary schedule too…

ESPN has the Gophers’ 2023 schedule ranked as the 4th most difficult in all of college football, according to their Football Power Index and, with five opponents in the AP preseason top-25 (including two in the top-3), we now know why.

There’s no escaping how difficult this slate looks, on paper. In all likelihood, we can assume they go 0-2 vs Ohio State and Michigan. Then, they still have North Carolina, Iowa and Wisconsin on the docket.

GDateAP RankOpponentConf
1Aug 31, 2023NebraskaBig Ten
2Sep 9, 2023Eastern MichiganMAC
3Sep 16, 2023No. 21@ North CarolinaACC
4Sep 23, 2023@ NorthwesternBig Ten
5Sep 30, 2023LouisianaSun Belt
6Oct 7, 2023No. 2MichiganBig Ten
7Oct 21, 2023No. 25@ IowaBig Ten
8Oct 28, 2023Michigan StateBig Ten
9Nov 4, 2023IllinoisBig Ten
10Nov 11, 2023@ PurdueBig Ten
11Nov 18, 2023No. 3@ Ohio StateBig Ten
12Nov 25, 2023No. 19WisconsinBig Ten
Provided by CFB at Sports Reference: View Original Table
Generated 8/14/2023.
Worry less about the 2023 Minnesota Gophers offense.

So now we’ve seen why media, coaches and college football fans alike are down on Minnesota. But should they be? Let’s start with the concerns about the Gophers’ offensive unknowns.

For the same reasons that we listed above, regarding the departure of Mo Ibrahim and Tanner Morgan, I expect this year’s offense to be more explosive than any in its history. Yes, PJ Fleck has been a VERY stubborn football coach, when it comes to his offensive philosophy. But he is finally being forced into the future.

The Big Ten West will not be in existence next year. That means more games vs Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State and new in-conference rivalries vs incoming USC, UCLA and Oregon. A 1942 offensive game plan is not sustainable in the new Big Ten and Fleck knows it. So do the Badgers, who hired Luke Fickell away from Cincinnati because he’s one of the best offensive minds in the country.

That’s why, when Morgan and Ibrahim moved on, Fleck focused on providing the new center point of his offense, Athan Kaliakmanis, with a beefed up arsenal of weapons. The Gophers’ internal arms race starts with last year’s eventual WR1, Daniel Jackson, who went for 557 yards and 5 TD’s in 2022 and has looked good at fall camp.

Then, there’s the return of former WR1, Chris Autman-Bell, who’s expected to be active week 1 vs Nebraska, after blowing out his knee early in 2022. By season’s end, however, it could be two transfer portal wide receivers, Corey Crooms (Western Michigan) and Elijah Spencer (Charlotte), who emerge as the Gophers’ WR1 and/or WR2. Both were named to the preseason Biletnikoff Award Watch List, which is rewarded to the best wide receiver in the country at the end of each season.

Yet at the end of the day, Athan’s most talented and reliable target could be one of the best receiving tight ends in the country, Brevyn Spann-Ford, a preseason All-Big Ten selection who undoubtedly would have been drafted in April, had he chosen to go pro. If Brevyn has a big season, he could be one of the top TEs off the board in April.

Athan Kaliakmanis is the key

But let’s get back to the quarterback, because he is the key to all of this. Sure, Athan Kaliakmanis doesn’t have a resume that sticks out, after appearing in 11 games in 2022. But I have covered the Gophers in-person for much of PJ Fleck’s tenure and I can say, without a doubt, Athan is the most talented QB Fleck has coached while in Dinkytown.

Athan is 6-4, 210 pounds and his right arm is a cannon. He throws well on the run and his legs are a legitimate threat defenses must account for, both as part of the planned run game and when he’s forced to scramble. Kaliakmanis was far from perfect last year but he got better as PJ took the shackles off and the season rolled on.

It seems people weren’t paying attention or have already forgotten what he did to Wisconsin in the final regular season game of 2022, when he threw for 319 yards and 2 touchdowns (0 INT).

So sure, neither Tanner Morgan nor Mohamed Ibrahim are Gophers in 2023. But, that’s not a bad thing. Fleck & Co have been forced to build around Athan Kaliakmanis and that will mean a lot more pass attempts and an offensive scheme that doesn’t look like it was constructed 75 years ago.

The Gophers’ revamped offense isn’t going to break air-raid passing records set by Drew Brees’ Boilermakers in the early 2000’s or Ryan Day’s attack with the Buckeyes. But it will catch fans, media and opposing teams across the Big Ten off-guard throughout the 2023 season and I expect Kaliakmanis to make them pay.

Chill out on the schedule difficulty…

Now, let’s talk about this very scary schedule everyone is talking about. Again, I’m not calling for Gopher upsets over the #2 and/or #3 ranked teams in the country, Michigan and Ohio State respectively. But are the West rival Badgers or Hawkeyes really going to live up to their preseason hype in 2023?

Let’s not forget, Wisconsin hit the reset button this offseason, hiring Luke Fickell from Cincinnati. Look, there’s no doubt the Badger fanbase should be excited about where their offense is about to go. Fickell is a great hire. But this is year 1. Even in the instant transfer portal age, new programs almost always start slower than anticipated.

Meanwhile, Iowa did nothing to improve their completely non-existent pass game, outside of bringing in Michigan back-up QB, Cade McNamara, and continue the nepotistic employment of Brian Ferentz, son of head coach Kirk Ferentz, as offensive coordinator. Even after the Hawkeyes ranked in the bottom-ten OF 129 FBS TEAMS last season, both in scoring offense (17.7 PPG) and yards gained (251.5 YPG).

I do not trust Fickell to turn the Wisconsin Badgers around in one season, when he’s not the one who recruited most of the team. And until the Iowa Hawkeyes move on from the Ferentz’, their football program will continue to decline. Sometimes, it’s just time to move on. At this point, Fleck’s inability to win vs Iowa is all in his own head.

Will the Minnesota Gophers win the Big Ten West in its final season of existence? I’ve been a Minnesota Sports fan far too long to call for anything like that. But there’s no doubt they will be better than advertised and suprise a lot of people throughout the next few months.

Eric Strack | Minnesota Sports Fan