Minnesota has just the seventh-best odds to win the Big Ten.
P.J. Fleck and the Golden Gophers aren't getting much respect following last year's 11-2 campaign that culminated with a win over Auburn in the Outback Bowl. As we sit here in late June, three West Division programs – Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Iowa – all have better odds to capture the Big Ten title.
Those odds are a little surprising considering all that Fleck has returning to the Twin Cities. It's true that the Badgers and Hawkeyes both got the best of the Gophers in 2019, but both programs lost some heavy hitters following the season. Iowa will be without quarterback Nate Stanley along with Tristan Wirfs and A.J. Epenesa in the trenches. Paul Chryst loses three starters on the offensive line, All-American Jonathan Taylor, and multiple starters at linebacker.
Ohio State has made four Big Ten Championship appearances dating back to the start of the playoff era. Three matchups with Wisconsin and the 2018 edition against Northwestern saw the Buckeye defense go up against some mediocre and/or one-dimensional offenses that didn't do a whole lot through the air. A 2020 clash with the Gophers could have an entirely different feel.
In his first full season as a starter, Tanner Morgan threw for 3,253 yards, 30 touchdowns, and completed 66 percent of his attempts. All three were new single-season records for the Golden Gophers. Morgan surprisingly was unable to beat out walk-on Zack Annexstad back in 2018. Now a redshirt junior, some pundits are viewing him as a potential NFL starter.
Some other reasons for excitement? Minnesota returns a potential first-round pick at receiver, all five starting offensive linemen, and its top four tight ends. Rashod Batemen caught 60 passes for over 1,200 yards and 11 scores as a sophomore in 2019. He'll be alongside guys like Ja'Marr Chase, DeVonta Smith, Jaylen Waddle, and Chris Olave as some of the country's best.
Rashod Bateman, WR, #Minnesota:— Jordan Reid (@JReidNFL) May 2, 2020
Ball plucker (++)
Route salesman (++)
PhD level understanding of leverage
Violent jab steps to create space (+)
Excellent field awareness
Full throttle routes all the time
Build up speed/runway runner pic.twitter.com/5L9acf4g5H
The question marks for Fleck and his crew? Bateman's running mate is now catching passes from Tom Brady in Tampa. Tyler Johnson was the Big Ten's leading receiver in 2019 with 1,318 yards and 13 touchdowns. Chris Autman-Bell will need to step up in the No. 2 role after recording 28 receptions as a sophomore a season ago. Defensively, only five starters are back, and losing a player like Antoine Winfield Jr. may lead to the offensive needing to put up some more points.
The biggest question, however, revolves around the man running the show. Offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca did a heck of a job with Morgan and the surrounding pieces, but he's now assumed the same role in Happy Valley. Mike Sanford Jr. is now in charge of the Gopher offense after stints at Boise State, Notre Dame, and most recently Utah State.
With first-round pick Jordan Love leading the way, Sanford and the Aggies had the nation's No. 43 total offense in 2019 and finished with the nation's No. 31 passing attack.
We've touched on it before, but the young Ohio State secondary is getting a bit of a nice break with some inexperienced quarterbacks in 2020. Oregon, Iowa, and Michigan will all have new starters. Indiana's Michael Penix Jr. is talented but has been battling injuries. Adrian Martinez regressed as a sophomore, and I'm just not sold on Sean Clifford striking fear into opposing defenses.
If the Buckeyes get to Indy once again and the Gophers are able to do the same, guys like Josh Proctor, Cam Brown, and Sevyn Banks will all have gained plenty of valuable experience beforehand and Kerry Coombs will be a bit more seasoned as a play-caller.
During the playoff era, Ohio State has dealt with Melvin Gordon, Jonathan Taylor, and whatever it was Northwestern's offense was doing in 2018. The Golden Gophers could present a different challenge this time around, but P.J. Fleck will have to show that last season's 11-2 performance wasn't just a flash in the pan.