Minnesota Is Finally A Program To Reckon With

The storied history of the Minnesota Golden Gophers football program is perhaps best exhibited by its claim to the origins of cheerleading. With Minnesota in the midst of a three-game losing streak in 1898,1 an editorial ran in the school paper that said, in part, “Any plan that would stir up enthusiasm for athletics would be helpful.”

More than a century later, Head Coach P.J. Fleck’s methodology, which calls for an unconventional supply of energy, has whisked up plenty in the Twin Cities, having transformed a contemporary doormat into the most surprising unbeaten team remaining.2 After Minnesota’s most recent win, Fleck all but begged ESPN’s “College GameDay” to visit Minneapolis for the upcoming matchup with Penn State.3

But prime-time consideration or not, one thing is certain: Fleck has his players rowingand rowing, and rowing, and rowing — toward the spotlight. Though the Gophers aren’t national title contenders yet, according to Vegas oddsmakers and most efficiency metrics, it’s nearly impossible to argue they aren’t at least contender-adjacent.

Minnesota is 8-0 for the first time since 19414 and has won 12 of its last 14 games. It’s instructive to recall that as recently as 2007, this was the worst Power Five team in the country by some metrics. Fan support isn’t exactly robust, either: Despite opening TCF Bank Stadium in 2009, the team has drawn such minimal attendance that the university’s official website can only boast that it has “the largest home locker room in college or professional football,” noting that someone could run a 60-yard dash inside it.5 All of which, of course, only adds to the strange reclamation project that has taken place in Fleck’s third season at the helm. Suddenly a program that went a combined 12-13 in Fleck’s first two seasons is on its way to a potential berth in the Big Ten championship game.

Like many seasoned programs, the Gophers have filled a trophy case over the decades, but college football’s Energizer Bunny might soon be unlocking it for the first time in the modern era.

Fleck’s is a mostly balanced operation. Minnesota’s offense and defense each ranks in the top 20 in expected points added,6 while the special-teams unit is abominable, ranking 124th out of 130 teams. “I think the teams that can be balanced at any moment, and can control and sustain the balance, are going to be the most dangerous teams,” Fleck has noted this season.

With top-tier quarterback Tanner Morgan and the school’s all-time leader in all-purpose yardage, Rodney Smith, in the backfield, the Gophers drink heavily from the value spigot that is play-action, generating the 25th most expected points added of any team via the play type. Minnesota piles up 9.67 net yards per pass attempt,7 which leads the Big Ten. The Gophers convert third downs at the eighth-highest clip, maintain drives and roast defenses upon reaching the red zone. On defense, the Gophers are on the hunt, specifically in the passing game. Only 10 teams have garnered more expected points added on pass defense — and only eight teams have compiled more interceptions.

In conference play, the Gophers are boat-racing the opposition. Only Clemson and Alabama have outscored conference opponents by a wider margin, and no team has held the lead longer in conference play than the Gophers, who have led for 28 minutes and 49 seconds through five games. They’ve outscored the last three opponents 128-24.

Additionally, the way in which Fleck has built the program portends to future success. By diligently recruiting, Minnesota has inked the highest-ranked consecutive recruiting classes in school history, according to Fleck. Just as he proved at Western Michigan, Fleck can attract marquee talent.

This analysis would prove hollow if strength of schedule weren’t noted. Unblemished record aside, Minnesota touts a body of work generously described as tepid. Minnesota won its first three games by a total of 13 points, needing a touchdown with less than 30 seconds remaining to beat Georgia Southern at home. The team’s best win is probably a double-overtime nail-biter over Fresno State, a program that ranks outside the top 60 in total efficiency. Opponents have a combined win percentage of .481, which ranks 98th nationally. But there will be no shortage of tests over the upcoming month: The Gophers play three ranked opponents over the next four weeks, two of which rank in the top 10 on ESPN’s Football Power Index. This week’s matchup against Penn State is considered by some to be the program’s biggest in a half-century.

With the subtlety of a flash grenade, Fleck has turned a fledgling football team into one closing in on its second 10-win campaign since the early 20th century. He brought an identity to a forgotten wasteland in a marquee conference. Regardless of how nauseating his sayings may seem to outsiders, Fleck brought oars to the Land of 10,000 Lakes and taught a community to embrace a shared mantra. “We’re as good as we are right now, that’s all I know,” Fleck said last month in certified coach-speak. What the Gophers are right now is pretty damn good — and that’s something they haven’t been in a while.

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