Minnesota was inconsistent all of last season, starting out 3-0 and losing four of its last five games. It wasn’t how coach P.J. Fleck imagined his first season would play out, nor was it a positive look from a nine-win team two years ago. The challenge will be even tougher in 2018 with several new faces on offense, including true freshman walk-on quarterback Zach Annexstad, who Fleck named his starter. Maybe it’s a good idea to start from scratch on offense because last year Minnesota finished 12th in the Big 10 in scoring and total offense. Senior running back Rodney Smith watched his numbers slip in year one under Fleck and there’s no immediate indication that his production will improve. The defense was descent in 2017 and may have to carry the team early on this fall.
Team strengths: The linebackers. Last season the defensive line got pushed around and the linebackers were forced to pick up the slack. Projected starters Thomas Barber, Kamal Martin and Blake Cashman combined for 187 tackles, including 21 from behind the line of scrimmage, 5.5 sacks and two interceptions. All three can fly from sideline to sideline and will be needed again as the Gophers grind through a meaty conference schedule.
Team weaknesses: Inexperienced quarterback and wide receivers. It’s one thing to have a true freshman signal-caller take the reigns of the offense, but having a walk-on earn the starting job shows that the other quarterbacks must’ve underachieved or that the team is desperate. Fleck emphasized at Big 10 media days that he was going to play several of his young guys and he’s standing by his word. Besides Tyler Johnson no other wideout caught more than 11 balls last season.
Players to watch: Running back Smith, wide receiver Johnson, defensive end Carter Coughlin, safety Jacob Huff. Smith has 2,805 career rush yards and 21 touchdowns. He’d like to get back to his 2016 mold when he was more of a workhorse and productive. Johnson led the team in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns last season. Averaging nearly 20 yards per catch shows how legit of a deep threat he can be. It’ll be interesting to see if Johnsons’ numbers slip because of a young and inexperienced quarterback. Coughlin had 11.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage and 6.5 sacks last season and will be the tone-setter up front for the defense. Huff had 65 tackles, including 3.5 behind the line of scrimmage and three interceptions, including a pic-six last season.
The schedule: Favorable. The non-conference games are a joke and all of the home games on the schedule are winnable. Minnesota has a chance to start off 4-0, but once October hits everything gets tougher. The road slate is brutal having to travel to Ohio State, Nebraska and Wisconsin.
My take: Fleck is sort of pushing the panic button and getting all of his young players experience. I see the offense struggling again this season and could possibly be worse. This team will go as far as the defense will allow. The offense needs time to transition and the non-conference schedule will give it the opportunity while the freshman quarterback and young receivers catch on. The slate of home games is what got me thinking Minnesota has a chance to win six games and become bowl-eligible.