Coming off of its first 11-win season in more than 100 years, Minnesota looks to remain a contender in the Big Ten West this season. The Golden Gophers' posted their most victories since going 13-0 way back in 1904, but ceded the division with a home loss to Wisconsin in the regular-season finale.
Minnesota rebounded with a win over Auburn in the Outback Bowl to cap the successful campaign and is looking to capitalize on the experience gained now that the Big Ten has decided to proceed with a truncated, eight-game schedule, starting on Oct. 24.
The Golden Gophers have steadily improved in each of P.J. Fleck's three seasons as head coach as he has built the program according to his blueprint. Some key players from last season have departed but 12 starters return and that number could grow by one if wide receiver Rashod Bateman is able to return after opting out in early August before the Big Ten announced all fall sports seasons, including football, had been postponed.
If Bateman is cleared to play, Minnesota's offense could be among the Big Ten's best with quarterback Tanner Morgan, running back Mohamed Ibrahim, and receivers Bateman Chris Autman-Bell, along with a veteran offensive line that returns intact leading the charge. The defense is going through more of a transition but there are some pieces to build around.
As for the schedule, the Gophers open with Michigan at home and also will host division rivals Iowa, Purdue and Northwestern with key road games against Wisconsin and Nebraska down the stretch.
So can Minnesota maintain its position near the top of the Big Ten West standings? Athlon asked a few editors to share their realistic win/loss projection for the Gophers this season.
Minnesota Football Game-by-Game Predictions for 2020
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
The Golden Gophers are the biggest challenger to Wisconsin in the Big Ten West once again. Coach P.J. Fleck’s squad has the makings of a strong offense once again, as receiver Rashod Bateman opted back into the 2020 season (still needs a waiver to be cleared to play) to join quarterback Tanner Morgan and five returning starters in the trenches. The offense doesn’t have many preseason question marks, but a new co-coordinator setup — Matt Simon and Mike Sanford — is something to watch. The question marks for Minnesota rest with a defense that brings back only five starters and must replace All-American Antoine Winfield at safety. The opener against Michigan should tell us a lot about both teams, but the West Division is likely to come down to the Nov. 28 trip to Madison.
Mark Ross (@AthlonMark)
Minnesota is in great shape under P.J. Fleck to sustain the recent success but whether or not Rashod Bateman is deemed eligible will be critical to how much of a threat the Gophers will be in the Big Ten West in 2020. If he's cleared, Bateman completely transforms this offense, which will be needed even more given the turnover on the other side of the ball. Either way, Minnesota has a difficult path to a division title, opening against Michigan and having to go to both Madison and Lincoln late in the season. The Gophers will be a tough out, but I don't think they have enough to finish atop the standings this season.
Ben Weinrib (@benweinrib)
Minnesota is hoping for a boost to their offense if Rashod Bateman can get a waiver to rejoin the team after he opted out in August to declare early for the 2021 NFL Draft. His loss really stung since he was expected to shoulder much of the load after record-setting running mate Tyler Johnson graduated. Chris Autman-Bell is a fine receiver but not on their level. Without him, the Gophers will need to shift even more of their offense onto running back Mohamed Ibrahim, who himself has to replace Rodney Smith. P.J. Fleck will have to row his team past tough opponents in Michigan and Iowa early in the season at home to have a shot at the division title, so we should quickly know if his team still has what it takes to contend.
(Top photo courtesy of Minnesota Athletics)