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Minnesota Football: 2018 Gophers Preview and Prediction

Rodney Smith, Minnesota Football

Rodney Smith, Minnesota Football

P.J. Fleck's last program (Western Michigan) improved its win total by seven games from his first year to the second season. A similar jump in Minneapolis is unlikely, but improvement should be noticeable. Minnesota's bowl hopes rest on QB play after this team threw just seven touchdown passes in league play last fall. Fleck is counting redshirt freshman Tanner Morgan to claim the job. Quarterback isn't the only question mark on offense. This unit needs more playmakers to emerge to complement wide receiver Tyler Johnson and running back Rodney Smith. Additionally, the line returns only one player who started every game last fall. The defense -- which allowed only 22.8 points per game in 2017 -- is solid, but it won't matter much in Big Ten play if the offense doesn't take a big step forward.

Previewing Minnesota Football's Offense for 2018

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Minnesota's run-pass option offense struggled in its first season under coach P.J. Fleck, scoring 22.1 points per game (108th in the nation). The Gophers were especially bad in the passing game, averaging only 126.1 yards per game (122nd). The lack of consistent quarterback play was the primary reason for the struggles, and they abandoned the air attack altogether in some games.

Minnesota opened spring ball in 2018 with a new, inexperienced duo -- sophomore junior college transfer Vic Viramontes and redshirt freshman Tanner Morgan. Neither has attempted a pass at the FBS level. However, Viramontes transferred back to the junior college ranks in June, leaving Morgan as the likely starter this season.

The Gophers' stable of quality running backs is down to one known commodity -- senior Rodney Smith, who is 1,260 all-purpose yards away from breaking the school record. Fellow tailback Shannon Brooks injured his leg in offseason workouts and will miss the 2018 season. Receiver Tyler Johnson led the team in all categories, and an ensemble needs to emerge around him.

The offensive line is building depth and added a couple of behemoth recruits from IMG (Fla.) Academy who could play as freshmen -- tackle Daniel Faalele, 6'9" and 400 pounds, and guard Curtis Dunlap, the smaller one at 6'5" and 370.

Previewing Minnesota Football's Defense for 2018

The Gophers' 4-3 defense was the better unit in 2017, allowing 22.8 points per game (36th in the country), and they were even better against the pass, giving up 174.5 yards (11th). The defense will be led by a trio of players -- junior defensive end Carter Coughlin, who had team highs in sacks and tackles for a loss a year ago; junior linebacker Thomas Barber, who had a team-high 115 tackles; and junior safety Antoine Winfield Jr., who is a welcome returnee after missing most of last year with a hamstring injury.

The Gophers need to have some new defensive tackles step up, with eyes primarily on Alabama transfer O.J. Smith. The Gophers have struggled to get to the quarterback in non-blitz situations, and they hired a pass-rush specialist in coach Marcus West to help fix the issue. Freshman defensive end Esezi Otomewo and sophomore cornerback Kiondre Thomas are prime candidates to emerge this season.  

Previewing Minnesota Football's Specialists for 2018

Emmit Carpenter, the 2016 Big Ten Kicker of the Year, will look to rebound after making only 14-of-20 field goals in 2017. Capable punter Jacob Herbers replaces Ryan Santoso. The Gophers will look for help in the return game in preseason camp.

Final Analysis

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For the third time in four seasons, Minnesota figures to enter November still in search of an elusive sixth win -- and bowl eligibility. A year ago, in Fleck's first season at Minnesota, the Gophers lacked depth and talent and finished at 5-7, including 2-7 in the Big Ten. It marked the first time Minnesota had missed a bowl since 2011.

"The outside people are going to say, "What about your wins?"" Fleck said during the spring. "Again, I'm not worried about all that. I'm not worried one bit about any of the wins and losses. I'm worried about developing this football team."

Fleck, who took Western Michigan from 1-11 to 8-5 in Year 2 in Kalamazoo, received a one-year rollover contract extension at Minnesota during last season and now has five years remaining to build the program in his image.

NATIONAL RANKING: 73
BIG TEN WEST PREDICTION: 6