P.J. Fleck and the Gophers open a season of great expectations against one of the country's best FCS programs
The Minnesota Golden Gophers are being tossed around as a sexy pick to win the Big Ten West heading into the 2019 college football season. A roster full of veterans — including some elite talent on defense and a stable of explosive running backs — combined with a fairly manageable schedule has experts thinking that the Gophers could be making a trip to Indianapolis to compete for the Big Ten crown at season's end.
The trajectory of the program has been upward since the arrival of P.J. Fleck, and everyone — from players to administration to fans — seems to have bought into his vision. It's not surprising that many people are expecting big things from the program in 2019.
Opening weekend, however, will provide Fleck and Co. with a formidable test. The South Dakota State Jackrabbits once again head into a college football season as one of the premier programs in all of the FCS. They are expected to compete for the national championship at that level, and they won't be intimidated whatsoever by what has essentially been an average Minnesota program for as long as anyone can remember.
South Dakota State at Minnesota
Kickoff: Thursday, Aug. 29 at 9 p.m. ET
Spread: Minnesota -13
When South Dakota State Has the Ball
The Jackrabbits will be working in a new quarterback, so they are going to want to establish the run to take pressure off whoever is under center. They have a pair of capable running backs in Pierre Strong Jr. and Mikey Daniel who can do that.
Once the Jackrabbits have their feet wet on offense, they'll want to force the ball downfield and put pressure on Antoine Winfield Jr. and the rest of the Gopher secondary through the air. When they do that, they'll be targeting All-America wide receiver Cade Johnson frequently. Last season, Johnson caught 67 balls for 1,332 yards, and his 17 receiving touchdowns led FCS.
When Minnesota Has the Ball
The Gophers' gameplan is going to mirror what South Dakota State wants to do offensively. Quarterback Tanner Morgan is going to have some butterflies, so it will behoove the Gophers to pound the ball at the Jackrabbits with a combination of Rodney Smith, Mohamed Ibrahim and Shannon Brooks. Ideally, they would like to wear out the Jackrabbits front seven — led by tackling machine Christian Rozeboom — early on.
Once the Gophers feel like they've done that, look for Morgan to start taking advantage of what will be the game's biggest mismatch from a positional standpoint: Minnesota's receivers vs. the South Dakota State secondary. The Jackrabbit defensive backs are going to have a hard time winning battles against the duo of Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman, two future NFL draft picks. As a result, you'll see Fleck's bunch uncharacteristically air it out in order to try to put the game away early.
South Dakota State is a more than formidable foe for Minnesota's season opener. In past years, I would have felt comfortable calling the upset without a second thought. Heading into 2019, however, P.J. Fleck has built up his roster — particularly in the trenches on both sides of the ball — to the point where the Gophers should be able to dominate any FCS team up front.
Once that dominance is established in the trenches, look for the Gophers to start lighting up the scoreboard with the clear advantage they have at the skill positions.
Prediction: Minnesota 45, South Dakota State 20
— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. His work has appeared on SI.com, FoxSports.com, Yahoo!, SBNation, USA Today and Bleacher Report. He is a three-time FWAA writing contest award winner. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.
(Top photo courtesy of @GopherFootball)