PJ Fleck Coaching Rivalries Take Over Gophers 2022 Non-Conference Schedule

Photo: David Berding – Getty Images

The Minnesota Gophers’ 2021 football season hasn’t ended at 8-4. On December 28, PJ Fleck and Co will travel to Phoenix, AZ where they’ll lineup opposite the (6-6) West Virginia Mountaineers in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl.

But while waiting for the end of December to draw a little closer, I’ve been looking forward to the 2022 season schedule. On paper, it looks easier than what we saw in 2021, mostly because the Big Ten schedule misses both Ohio State and Michigan. That, however, is a blog for another day.

We know that PJ Fleck and the Minnesota Gophers have a knack for making early season matchups vs lesser opponents way too competitive. Game plans and scheming against teams like South Dakota State, Georgia Southern, Miami (OH) and Bowling Green during the last two non-conference season have been more much more bland than what we’ve seen in Big Ten play. They got away with it in 2019 (barely) but it cost them a win vs BGSU in 2021.

But if there was any year where Fleck and his staff would “change their best” during non-conference play, it might be in 2022.

Wk 1: New Mexico State w/new HC, Jerry Kill

Jerry Kill hates PJ Fleck and that’s not hyperbole. Kill has come out publicly multiple times, since the University of Minnesota hired Fleck, and denounced both the hire and how his former staff was treated on their way out.

There is absolutely nothing else Jerry Kill will think about during this offseason than beating PJ Fleck. He could lose every other game and still call the season a success if he comes to Huntington Bank Stadium to knock off his old Gophers and his most-hated peer.

For PJ Fleck, that’s a nightmare he cannot afford to see come true. Writers in this town would NEVER let him forget about losing to a “Year Zero” New Mexico State team coached by Kill.

Wk 3: Colorado w/new OC, Mike Sanford

Mike Sanford lasted two season as Minnesota Gophers offensive coordinator, before being fired at the end of November. His tenure will not be remembered fondly. Sanford will forever be known as the OC who ruined (or almost ruined, depending on how 2022 goes) Tanner Morgan as a quarterback.

Now, Mike Sanford is heading to Colorado University where he’ll be offensive coordinator and QB’s Coach. The Buffaloes football brain trust must’ve liked what they saw when the Gophers thumped them 30-0 in Boulder. So much so that they’re willing to ignore what happened to Minnesota’s passing game after Sanford took over.

Sanford vs Rossi

The Minnesota Gophers and Colorado Buffaloes will fulfill their two-year home/away football agreement in 2022 when CU comes to Huntington Bank Stadium in week 3 of the non-conference. I can promise that Joe Rossi and his defensive staff aren’t bringing a vanilla scheme or game plan to that matchup.

Mike Sanford will be in a new environment and working for a new head coach. His offense is bound to have a much different flavor than what we saw while he was here. It will be up to Joe Rossi and PJ Fleck to change up what they’re doing enough defensively that Mike can’t take advantage of what he learned while here.

We’ve seen PJ Fleck’s Gophers play down to, and even lose, vs opponents who shouldn’t belong on the same field. So it doesn’t really matter how good the 2022 New Mexico State or Colorado teams are. Fleck will have to get his team more ready to play in next season’s non-conference than he has in the past or he could face a terrible and embarrassing start to the season. Because more than ever, the opposing coaching staffs will be ready and hungry to taste the tears of PJ.

Now watch the Gophers’ one non-conference loss be against Western Illinois in week 2. That would be the Minnesota way.

Eric Strack | Minnesota Sports Fan