Minnesota Golden Gophers
Head Coach: PJ Fleck
2018 Record: 7-6, 3-6 Conference
Bowl: 34-10 Win over Ga Tech at Quick Lane Bowl
Season Win Prop: 7.5 wins (O -150, U +120)
Make 4 Team Playoff: +12500
The Minnesota Golden Gophers exceeded expectations last season by posting a winning record and dominating Georgia Tech in its Quick Lane Bowl win. The Gophers are upping the bar this season, and PJ Fleck is nearly cocky about his team’s chances. Perhaps that is not misguided. The Gophers had an extremely young team last season, and it returns the majority of its starters, including 90 percent of its offense. Entering his third season at Minnesota, Fleck is ready to build on the momentum and perhaps take the Big Ten by surprise.
Fleck returns an offense that now has both experience and talent, a deadly combo even in the Big Ten West. Zach Annexstead returns for his sophomore season at QB after winning the starting gig in 2018 camp. He started seven games last year before his season ended due to injury, throttling Tanner Morgan into his role. Annexstead was 3-4 as a starter while Morgan went 4-2. Morgan had a better passer rating, but Annexstead is still better. Morgan is shorter and Annexstead is more of a natural in the pocket. He should start this season and hopefully, he can endure it without injury.
Annexstead will have a great receiving corp to air it out to. All-Big Ten senior Tyler Johnson set a single-season record with 1,169 yards and 12 TDs last year, and freshman Rashod Bateman had 704 yards and six TDs. Tight ends Jake Paulson and Brevyn Spann-Ford will give the Gophers two more passing targets, and the offense should be strong in the passing game with four great options like these.
The backfield returns sophomore Mohamed Ibrahim who averaged 5.7 yards-per-carry with nine TD rushes last year. He also was MVP of the Quick Lane Bowl. Ibrahim stepped into the role of No. 1 back following the injuries to Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks. Their returns give Maryland a ton of depth if all remain healthy, and Brooks and Smith have combined for over 4,000 yards and 40 TDs thus far. The Gophers lose two on its OL, and LT will be occupied by Donnell Greene who was really impressive in the spring.
Robb Smith was fired quickly last season as defensive coordinator. This unit allowed 646 yards in a 55-31 stomping at the hands of the lowly Illinois Fighting Illini last season. That speaks pretty strongly of how much improvement needs to occur. Big Ten teams averaged 42 points and 420 yards in blowouts in the three games leading up to that meltdown. Joe Rossi was good enough as an interim that he will guide the unit this season, and his coaching performance in the surprising win over Wisconsin all but assured this.
Rossi will use a 4-3 base, but it will have some variations. Maryland loses its top two tacklers from last season in Blake Cashman and Jacob Huff. Carter Coughlin is an amazing replacement at the end, and six starters do return. Coughlin had 9.5 sacks last year.
The linebacker group will be led by Thomas Barber and Kamal Martin. Cashman’s absence hurts, though. The return of safety Antoine Winfield Jr. will be huge. He redshirted after a foot injury in the fourth game last season. He was a Freshman All-American in 2016, and Minnesota needs him back in that form. The secondary lacks experience, and he should help make up for it, with sophomore Terrell Smith adding plenty of talent and explosiveness to the group. DT is the weakest spot in the defense. It will turn to graduate transfer Micah Dew-Treadway and it has two strong recruits in Keonte Schad and Rashad Cheney to develop. Minnesota will hope that development comes quickly in the unforgiving Big Ten.
The loss of Emmit Carpenter at placekicker is substantial. Michael Lantz and Michael Tarbutt compete for that role. Jacob Herbers is back after attempting just 51 punts last season. Winfield and Demetrious Douglas both are good returners who had returns for TDs last season.
The Gophers do have a soft non-conference schedule, and getting off a good start is imperative before the tough Big Ten schedule begins. Minnesota has to replace key tacklers, but if its defense is up to par it could be a surprise team this season.
Prediction: 8 wins (over)