MINNEAPOLIS - The University of Minnesota football team kicks of the 2022 regular season Thursday night, under the lights at Huntington Bank Stadium, against former Minnesota coach Jerry Kill and New Mexico State.
Coming off a 9-4 season in 2021, everything is in front of the Gophers and PJ Fleck when it comes to winning the Big Ten West. Fleck is 35-23 in five seasons at Minnesota, 21-22 in Big Ten play in 3-0 in bowl games.
Here are nine keys for the Gophers to win the West, and play for a Big Ten title in December in Indianapolis.
In 2019, Tanner Morgan set every single-season school record there was to set as the Gophers went 11-2, their best season in 115 years. Kirk Ciarrocca spent the past two seasons at Penn State, and Morgan had his ups and downs with a combined 17 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. Morgan is a sixth-year senior with 40 career starts, and already leads the program in wins. Ciarrocca is back in charge of the offense. Will it lead to 2019-like success? We’ll find out.
KEEP MO IBRAHIM/TREY POTTS HEALTHY
It’s fair to wonder what the 2021 season could’ve been if Mo Ibrahim and Trey Potts stay healthy. Ibrhaim tore his Achilles against Ohio State. Potts suffered a season-ending injury at Purdue, and many thought his career might be over. Ibrahim is the 2020 Big Ten Running Back of the Year, and Potts had 575 yards and six touchdowns last year before getting hurt. The Gophers need them both healthy to have a consistent run game this fall.
NEW-LOOK OFFENSIVE LINE MUST GEL
The Gophers lost four starters from last year’s offensive line, with only center John Michael Schmitz back. That’s a good start, as he’s on watch lists for the Outland Trophy, Rimington Award and Lombardi Award. So who will be alongside him protecting Morgan and creating holes for the run game? The first-team offensive line throughout fall camp has been Aireontae Ersery, Axel Ruschmeyer, Schmitz, Martes Lewis and Michigan transfer Chuck Filaga. JJ Guedet and Quinn Carroll are pushing Lewis for a starting job.
D-LINE NEEDS NEW NAMES TO EMERGE
The days of Boye Mafe, Esezi Otomewo, Nyles Pinckney and Micah Dew-Treadway are over. The returning starters from last year’s defensive line are Trill Carter, and Thomas Rush. The first-team line in fall camp has featured Carter, Rush, Houston Baptist transfer Kyler Baugh and Jalen Logan-Redding. They’ll get pushed by Danny Striggow, Gage Keys, Jah Joyner, Deven Eastern and transfers Darnell Jefferies and Lorenza Surgers. It might be Fleck’s deepest defensive line in his six years. We’ll see who emerges in the non-conference.
BEST SECONDARY IN THE BIG TEN?
It’s going to be difficult for offenses to move the ball on the Gophers through the air. That’s not something we’ve been able to say very often with Minnesota. Joe Rossi’s defense might feature the best safety duo in the Big Ten in Tyler Nubin and Jordan Howden. Justin Walley is coming off a standout freshman season, Terell Smith looks like a different player and Fleck added Ryan Stapp and Beanie Bishop from the transfer portal. We’ll get our first look at them Thursday night, but they’ve all had flashes in fall camp.
TAKE CARE OF THE NON-CONFERENCE
The Gophers are 36.5-point favorites against New Mexico State. They’ll be favored against Western Illinois and Colorado. There’s absolutely no need for any of these three games to be interesting, or close. The Gophers have a history of doing both, as we all saw the Bowling Green debacle last season. Let’s have the only drama of the non-conference schedule be the pre and postgame handshakes between Fleck and Jerry Kill. It would be refreshing to have all three non-conference games be more than comfortable wins.
WIN YOUR HOME GAMES
After three non-conference home games, Minnesota gets Purdue, Rutgers, Northwestern and Iowa at Huntington Bank Stadium. Defend your home turf, and that gets you seven wins at a minimum. None of those four Big Ten home opponents is a juggernaut. If the Gophers are serious about winning the Big Ten West, it needs to be a 7-0 home slate.
STEAL ONE OF MICHIGAN STATE, PENN STATE
The reality is we won’t know a lot about Fleck’s 2022 Gophers until Week 4, when they head to East Lansing and take on Michigan State. The Spartans won 11 games last year, started 8-0, went 6-0 at home and beat Michigan. The Gophers travel to Penn State Oct. 22 for their annual "White Out" game at Happy Valley. There’s not many more hostile road environments in the Big Ten. The Nittany Lions went 7-6 last year, and a disappointing 4-5 in the Big Ten.
Minnesota can send a major message to the conference with a win at Michigan State to open Big Ten play.
WIN FLOYD OF ROSEDALE
Fleck is well aware of how much rivalry games mean at Minnesota. The first time his Gophers won at Wisconsin, there was an all-night party on campus waiting for them when they got home. What can’t be ignored is his 0-5 record against Kirk Ferentz and Purdue, including a 27-22 loss in Iowa City last year in a game that was there to be taken.
The road to the Big Ten West title, like it does most years, likely goes through beating Wisconsin and/or Iowa. It’s time to keep Floyd of Rosedale in Minneapolis for once.
Football season is here, let’s enjoy the ride.