The Minnesota Gopher football team is coming off a… less than impressive season. But still, there’s some optimism floating around town that this team can compete for a Big Ten West title in 2021. PJ Fleck is giving off a much more positive vibe than what he’s displayed in off-seasons past and youth certainly won’t be an excuse he can rely on.
So, I’ve written FIVE different reasons why the Gophers CAN win the Big Ten West this season. For the record, this isn’t me picking Minnesota to finish on top of Wisconsin, Iowa and the rest of the West-Siders. But if you want to believe, here are five legitimate legs for you to stand on.
1.) Tanner Morgan has seen it all
2020 Tanner Morgan wasn’t as good as 2019 Tanner Morgan. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t learn and get better. Morgan now has a boatload of college football experience and that’s really valuable, especially in a Big Ten full of inexperienced QB’s.
If Tanner can return to his 2019 form, that’ll go a long ways for this football team and would definitely make him draftable next April. He threw for 3,253 yard and 30 TDs in 2019 (13 games), compared to just 1,374 yards and 7 TD’s in the shortened 2020 (7 games).
2.) Top RB in the country, Mo Ibrahim, is back.
Mo Money, Mo Problems. Mo Ibrahim was an absolute stud in 2020, he was seemingly able to find and create his own lanes time after time again last year. His physical attributes may not stand out, but tell him that when trying to bring him down. Mo returning for another year is massive. His grasp of the offense and his ability to take over games is incredible.
You could legitimately make a case that Mo Ibrahim is the nation’s top running back entering 2021. Last year, he ran for 1,076 yards on 201 carries in just 7 games, racking up 15 (!!) touchdowns in the process. If the Gophers are gonna have any chance at winning the West this year, Mo needs to have a historic season.
“Listen, Mo Ibrahim rushed for 1076 yards in only 7 games in 2020 averaging 153.7 ypg.”— Barstool Gophers (@BarstoolUMN) May 28, 2021
“Now, in 2021 with a healthy offensive line and a 12 game schedule he’s gotta break at least Melvin Gordon’s Big Ten single season rushing record, if not Barry Sanders’ NCAA rushing record.” pic.twitter.com/zo3NSkztoe
3. Stacked OL, with both experience and talent
The Gophers’ 2020 offensive line was solid, especially in the run game, where Mo Ibrahim to thrived. They return all five starters from last year and add back NFL talent like Daniel Faalele, who opted out last season, and Curtis Dunlap who was injured. Connor Olson and Sam Schlueter both announced after the season ended they would return for a sixth collegiate season at the University of Minnesota, making this the deepest and oldest offensive lines in the nation.
There are eight guys that I would be comfortable starting on this offensive line in 2021. I expect this unit to be dominant in the run blocking and hopefully improve in pass protection. If the latter comes to fruition, then PJ Fleck’s optimism could be well-founded.
4. Deep DL with tons of talent and potential
The Minnesota defensive line struggled last year but you could see some big strides being made towards the end of the season. Guys like De’Angelo Carter, Rashad Cheney and MJ Anderson all played really well down the stretch, as they got better acclimated to Big Ten football as redshirt freshman.
They also return three starters from last year in Boye Mafe, Micah Dew-Treadway, and Esezi Otomewo. Boye showed flashes last year of what he can be, leading the team in sacks and TFLs while showing that he has the potential to be a future front of the draft pick. Still, Mafe has another gear to reach and I expect him to do that this season.
On top of everyone returning, the Minnesota Gophers have also added a couple of interior defensive linemen transfers out of the ACC, in Nyles Pinckney (Clemson) and Val Martin (NC State). Pinckney, who showed out in the Spring Game, was a captain at Clemson where he helped win a National Championship. Val has been talked up to be a good pass rusher. The Gophers badly need someone who can help apply pressure from the inside. This DL is deep, talented and could potentially rotate 6 (!!) defensive tackles this fall.
That certainly seems like a recipe for success.
The #Gophers have received a commitment from former 4🌟 Clemson DT, Nyles Pinckney.— Tony Liebert (@TonyLiebert) January 11, 2021
Pinckney earned third-team All-ACC in 2019, played in 55 games over the last four years and has over 1,100 career snaps.
He will have one year of eligibility remaining. https://t.co/D0lWjc0DgQ
5. Braelin Oliver is back, and Jack Gibbens is added to a group that struggled heavily last year
Last year’s linebacker play was awful… and that might be generous. Overrunning and missing tackles, poor angles, awful run fits all combined with a lack of awareness and physicality made this unit look absolutely terrible in 2020. But there’s some good news.
Braelin Oliver, who flashed as a Redshirt Freshman in 2019, is back. He’s a tough, fast and physical linebacker who should provide some of that desperately needed help in defending the run. The Gophers also added transfer linebacker Jack Gibbens, who will push Mariano Sori-Marin for the starting Mike linebacker position. We got to see Gibbens in the spring game and he showed everything you would want from a Mike linebacker.
He played fast and downhill, made plays at or near the LOS and was able to wrap up and make tackles. It was a very impressive showing for a guy so new to the defense. The additions of Oliver and Gibbens, along with continued maturity of youngsters like Cody Lindenberg should lead to an improved second level. In reality, it can’t get much worse than what we saw.
So, that’s how the Minnesota Gophers win the West. After a disappointing 2020 campaign, let’s see if PJ Fleck’s optimism is well warranted. Game one vs Ohio State will certainly tell us something…
Max Carroll | Minnesota Sports Fan