The world was one Minnesota football season preview short. But not anymore. Other rightings: Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State, Purdue, Indiana, Nebraska, Northwestern, Rutgers, Maryland, Penn State, Illinois.
This is the first undefeated offseason the Gophers have had in years. When Minnesota dismissed Tracy Claeys, a Dilly-Barred personification of itself, in January, allegedly for siding with the players in a sexual assault suspension, it was easy to see a program lost and in turmoil — not merely at a crossroads, but on a distinct downward slope — like a man who wakes up in the morning, scans his face in the mirror, and marks the rough passage of time with something like resignation.
And then Minnesota made a drastic move.
It hired a coach so flamboyant, so loud, so energetic, so out there — not weird, merely vocal — that the program seemed to be daring, at last, to be relevant.
Taking cues from its demure program, a Gopher fan is usually just happy to be here–to be outside–contented with the state of everything.
But content will not do; not for this era; not with this coach. In four years, Fleck flipped the script of a Western Michigan program with absolutely no basis for success from 1-11 to 13-1. He has worked his way up — quickly — from assistant to head coach, and his torrid pace shows no signs of slowing down.
Under Fleck, Minnesota has gone 13-0 in the down months — months during which it is usually content to go 7-5 and take comfort in other pursuits — and is talking smack on Twitter in advance of the bowl game.
In PJ, the Gophers hired the Big Ten West’s equivalent of a Jim Harbaugh, a man about whom one must wonder, in all one sees and hears, whether one is getting 90% of the iceberg, or merely a fleck.
— P.J. Fleck (@Coach_Fleck) August 16, 2017
The genius of PJ is that you can see right through his persona, yet still believe there’s more than meets the eye. His trademark (literally) “Row the Boat” saying is such a transparent gimmick, so contrived, so cliche…and yet, aren’t gimmicks and cliches exactly what 19-year-old kids need to wind up in the land of 10,000 lakes?
— P.J. Fleck (@Coach_Fleck) August 22, 2017
In eight short months, Fleck has risen to become Minnesota’s number one fan, and second place isn’t even close.
— Heather Fleck (@hfleck10) August 24, 2017
When will the stream of dazzling bullshit end? Under what circumstances will boat and iceberg collide? And will Minnesota fans, a pretty chill bunch, learn to thaw out and give a fleck?
The answer, almost assuredly, will be “Sure, why not?” The fanbase was happy with Kill, happy with Claeys. Their optimism is cautious, their passions run medium. This shy, blonde, bookish team has all of a sudden attracted a hot young suitor, and if they know it won’t last, still, they like the sound of this “being good” thing.
He will win games on the field because he’s proven to be too good of a coach to fail at a program with resources like Minnesota’s. That’s what people say anyway, and everything that’s said about PJ Fleck is true until proven otherwise.
Yes, on enthusiasm alone, Minnesota is back. Officially, the slogans may be Row the Boat and Ski-U-Mah, but really the mantra is “Speak Rapidly and Carry a B1G Schtick.” Whether that schtick is enough to sustain Minnesota through a brutal second half of the season, or whether the team snaps in two, will be this year’s first and best indication of whether they have gambled much on an ace bullshitter, and lost much giving up that demure but reliable persona that says, if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.
Best Case Scenario
Who did PJ Fleck hector to get the Gophers this schedule? Traveling halfway across the country to Corvallis in week two to play against the Pac-12 bottomfeeders’ is the Gophers’ first hint of a challenge, and PJ’s gonna knock Buffalo and the Beavers right out of his boat and crack their skulls with his oar just for good measure. Rhoda and Croft both perform admirably in week one, but Croft separates himself as the more dynamic quarterback, earning the full go from week two on. He’s hardly needed in a 42-21 victory over spunky Middle Tennessee, whose dizzy defense surrenders a pair of 200-yard games to Smith and Brooks. Bounding into conference play with an enthusiasm well-known to Jim Harbaugh and the people of Kalamazoo, Fleck’s Gophers show Maryland how a two-headed running-back monster ought to look in the real Big Ten before steamrolling the Boilermakers in West Lafayette the next week, and all of a sudden fans start noticing that Croft hasn’t attempted a pass in six quarters. Could the Big Ten be this easy, thinks Fleck. After the Gophers’ drub Poordue, Fleck’s boredom becomes intolerable, and he secretly begins coaching Western Michigan again on the side. The extra coaching and recruiting help keep Fleck sharp, and it certainly doesn’t hurt that the Broncos already scouted and played (and beat) Michigan State, which receives yet another Gopher smackdown, this time with Croft going a perfect 11-11 for 153 yards and 1 TD. PJ’s double duty is once again no issue at home against Illinois, although Lovie shows concern at the midfield handshake that maybe Fleck’s working too hard, and should take more time for the little things. But the season takes a turn for the worse the following week when Minnesota faces its first true test on the road at Iowa. Youth versus Experience comes up on the side of the old once more as Ferentzwa wins it 13-3. Fleck officially resigns from his shadow coaching role with Western to focus on the remaining slate. The Gophers drop back-to-back games against Michigan and Nebraska, and once again fans notice Croft hasn’t completed a pass in six straight quarters. Facing adversity (and reminding everyone within earshot that he’s doing so), Fleck rallies his Gophers for one last hurrah, galvanizing Smith and Brooks to another pair of 200 yard performances to knock off Northwestern. The Gophers lose the rivalry game to Wisconsin, but the season is a success nonetheless. Fleck’s boys win a mid-tier bowl and give two dozen interviews about how happy they are to be in warmer weather. Will such a hot start mean a more permanent change of temperature for Fleck? At least one more year, Gophers fans.
Worst Case Scenario
Imitating the skittish trigger finger of the most capricious fantasy owner, PJ Fleck plays quarterbacks Demry Croft and Conor Rhoda at all the wrong times and in all the wrong matchups. The dysfunction is masked vs. Buffalo, where Minny’s run game puts the contest out of reach early, but rears its ugly head on the road at Oregon State, where an unsteady performance from Croft in the first half, which ends with a 13-10 Gopher lead, leads Fleck to insert Rhoda, cold. The latter throws two picks. Croft is put back in, but too late; with the Gophers now behind two scores, the run game is discarded. This back-and-forth becomes the template by which losses to Middle Tennessee and two of the group of Maryland/Purdue/Michigan State/Illinois play out, and the talents of Brooks and Smith are wasted. Yes, even when the offense seems to be clicking — in a highly watchable shootout with Purdue? — the suspect defense caves, and so the Gophers enter the legit part of their schedule panting at 3-4. Little mercy is shown by the bigger B1Gs, and a panicky Fleck faces an offseason of attempting to sell 3-9 following a 9-4 season as “progress.” Instead, he cashes in his options as an up-and-coming head coach by taking the Tennessee job. Glen Mason politely turns down the offer to return.
Most Likely Scenario
With one of the most proven running back tandems in the conference returning, the temptation is to say the floor can’t be too low for this Minnesota team. But the Gophers lost three OL starters, including tackle Jonah Pirsig, to graduation. And thanks to a thin defensive line and more plentiful talent at linebacker, the Gophers are in the midst of a shift to a 3-4 defense. These are not recipes for being able to stop the run, nor get it started at the same level at which it was operating under Tracy Claeys. Minnesota’s season appears poised to inculcate dramatic expectations, and it’s plausible they could win their first seven. But it’s safer yet to predict there will be slippage beforehand, either against Oregon State, Middle Tennessee, or a Michigan State team that is not too bad. And the last five games on that schedule are brutal. A 6-6 Gophers team blows out Air Force in the Armed Forces Bowl to finish with a winning record, and Fleck spends exactly no time enjoying any of the things discussed in this video, instead working his tail off to land Minny a top 15 recruiting class and convince Smith and Brooks to stick around for one more year.
Did You Know?
PJ Fleck rowed a boat from Kalamazoo to Minneapolis on I-94 over the course of two grueling weeks, stopping only for recruiting visits in Chicago and Eau Claire.
An offense in major transition is not an ideal place to mine for fantasy gold. As Minnesota lurches out of the aerially inept Kill-Claeys offensive era and moves to a Fleck offense that threw the ball almost 400 times for more than 3500 yards. But roll your dripping fantasy tongues back into your fantasy mouths because there will be growing pains and some ugly stat lines while Fleck breaks in a new signal caller…or two. Fleck named senior Conor Rhoda and sophomore Demry Croft co-starters for week 1. Position-by-committee is a mess, fantasy speaking, and QB-by-committee is like the Vietnam War. Gophers observers maintain Croft holds the edge in terms of talent and upside, so he’s probably the safer bet, but don’t build your team around a Gopher passer this season.
Junior Rodney Smith was one of the most productive and valuable fantasy assets in the league last year and a certain end-of-the-first or early second-round pick in your draft this year. Two seasons ago, tough-running freshman Shannon Brooks cracked the rotation and posted 700 yards and 7 TDs, enough to earn a starting spot on most fantasy teams. Injuries slowed Brooks last season, and while his value is diminished by Smith’s success as the number 1 back, that may actually help you get a deal on Brooks in this year’s draft. The more preseason hype Smith gets, the closer Brooks slips to the fifth round. Perhaps most encouraging, the 2016 Western Michigan offense produced a 1,300 and 900 yard running back. Kobe McCrary may steal a goal-line TD or two, but he’s an emergency free-agent option only.
PJ Fleck helped turn Corey Davis into one of the greatest college receivers of all time, so mayyyyybe he can turn junior tall-person with hands Rashad Still into a viable fantasy option. Word on the street is Tyler Johnson (not this one or this one) and Eric Carter are blooming into people who can catch passes and gain yards, a novel concept for a Minnesota offense. Even with the advent of the forward pass in the Twin Cities, don’t expect the Gophers to air it out too much in year one. Look for Still in rounds 9 or 10, and maybe he can be a grossly poor man’s Austin Carr.
Fleck offenses don’t use the tight end much, so a Gophers TE will go from fantasy gold to maroon shit over the next couple seasons. Assuming he stays healthy, Brandon Lingen may be the last draftable Minnesota TE for a while.
When it comes to Big Ten kickers, fantasy or real, no one’s better than Emmit “The One T” Carpenter, reigning conference KOTY and potential national KOTY.
With the exceptions of senior DT Steven Richardson and senior safety Duke McGhee, the Gophers have expelled or graduated their best defensive players. Depth is a serious concern, and the new coaching staff is going to need a year or two to bring in warm bodies and introduce new schemes. Last year’s Minnesota D was a safe lower-middle round option, the fantasy equivalent of lukewarm porridge, but this year’s may fall deep into the draft and perhaps become an anchor around your team’s neck. The schedule lines up favorably for the Gophers the first half of the season, but a back-loaded slate may kick you in the sack just as the playoffs start. Minnesota shouldn’t be higher than the 8th defense off the board.
Suggested Viewing Material
Need more huh?
Minny’s win over Wazzu, woohoo football
10 hours of a peaceful un-rowed boat