5 predictions for the 2020 Gopher football season

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - NOVEMBER 09: Head coach P.J. Fleck of the Minnesota Golden Gophers and his team take the field against the Penn State Nittany Lions at TCFBank Stadium on November 9, 2019 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Adam Bettcher/Getty Images / Getty Images)

The University of Minnesota football team opens its 2020 regular season under the bright lights Saturday night against Michigan at TCF Bank Stadium.

The No. 21-ranked Gophers battle the No. 18-ranked Wolverins for the Little Brown Jug, with the game on national television and ESPN’s College GameDay making its second straight trip to Dinkytown. The stage doesn’t get much bigger. Minnesota is coming off its best season since 1904, winning 11 games after beating Auburn in the Outback Bowl.

So where do the Gophers and P.J. Fleck go in 2020? Here’s five predictions for the season.

It’s time to take back Paul Bunyan’s Axe

If there’s one thing Gophers fans are tired of, it’s losing to Wisconsin. Two years ago, Fleck and the Gophers went to Camp Randall Stadium and shocked the Badgers with a 37-15 victory, the program’s first in 14 years, to earn bowl eligibility. Last year, College Gameday made its first trip to Minneapolis with Wisconsin in town for the Big Ten West title. The Badgers left with the Axe, and a 38-17 victory.

If the Gophers plan on contending for the Big Ten West, they’ll have to leave Camp Randall with a victory. Minnesota has seven starters back on offense, and Wisconsin starting quarterback Jack Coan is out indefinitely with a foot injury. The team the runs the football best generally wins, so Mohamed Ibrahim will need a bigger day than Garrett Groshek.

Tanner Morgan, Rashod Bateman in the Heisman Trophy talk?

It’s been decades since the Minnesota program has had a player in the Heisman Trophy conversation. This year, the Gophers might have two if their upward trajectory continues. Tanner Morgan was a Second Team All-Big Ten pick last season, throwing for more than 3,200 yards, 30 touchdowns and just seven interceptions. He was one of the most efficient passers in the country last season, and set several school records.

Rashod Bateman, the reigning Big Ten Receiver of the Year, is back after a battle with COVID-19 earlier this summer. He was in the running for the Biletnikoff Award last year, which goes to the top receiver in college football. He finished last year with 60 catches for 1,219 yards and 11 touchdowns. He’ll be the focal point of Big Ten defenses this season. He’s already a projected first round NFL Draft pick, and if the trend continues upward, he’s among the top receivers in college football.

Floyd of Rosedale stays in Minneapolis

The Gophers got off to their best start in 115 years last season, 9-0 before heading to Iowa. The Gophers came home without Floyd of Rosedale after a 23-19 loss. If Tyler Johnson makes a fourth down catch, it might be a different story. But a lot has changed in the off-season for the Hawkeyes. They’ll have a new quarterback, and the program faced allegations of racism from former players as athletes started to speak out on social justice causes.

The Gophers host Iowa on Friday, Nov. 13 on national television. It’s one of three Friday night games for Minnesota, and it’s time for Floyd of Rosedale to stay in Dinkytown.

Boye Mafe breaks out for Gophers defense

The biggest question mark for the Gophers is on defense, where they have as many as seven starters to replace. One place they have some experience is on the defensive line. One player anticipated to have a breakout season is rush end Boye Mafe. He’s an athletic freak who will take over Carter Coughlin’s spot. Last year, Mafe played in all 13 games and finished with 14 tackles, including 3.5 tackles for a loss and three sacks. Mafe is poised to have a year that makes life difficult on opposing quarterbacks.

Gophers will win Big Ten West

P.J. Fleck will know a lot more about his football team after facing Michigan Saturday night. If the Gophers can keep the Little Brown Jug in Minneapolis, the schedule sets up favorably for them to be 3-0 hosting Iowa. If they can beat the Hawkeyes, they should be 5-0 heading to Wisconsin.

Beat the Badgers, and you likely control your own destiny for a Big Ten West title, with a home game against Northwestern and traveling to Nebraska to finish the regular season.

Football is back, enjoy the ride.