Gophers football starts fall camp Wednesday, with Ohio State looming Sept. 2

University of Minnesota football coach PJ Fleck spoke Tuesday as the Gophers start fall camp on Wednesday, with Ohio State looming in the season opener on Sept. 2.

The University of Minnesota football team starts its fall camp on Wednesday.

A month from now, the hope for P.J. Fleck and the Gophers is they’re running out of the tunnel at Huntington Bank Stadium to a capacity crowd, ready to pull off an upset over one of the top programs in college football. The Gophers host Ohio State on Sept. 2 in a game you can see on Fox 9. It’s the first time they’ve opened against a top-five team since 2016, when they hosted TCU in a 23-17 loss.

Fleck joked at Big Ten Media Days that Minnesota is opening its season like the Kentucky Derby, facing a favored thoroughbred out of the gates. The Buckeyes won the Big Ten last year, and got to the College Football Playoff national title game before losing to Alabama.

"They're one of the best football programs in all of college football. We know who they are, we know what type of football team they are. They’re a top-five team, Sept. 2, 7 o'clock, hopefully a sellout crowd at Huntington Bank Stadium. There's nothing more you can ask for," Fleck said.

Fleck is 26-19 through four seasons with the Gophers, including a 15-19 mark in Big Ten play. That also includes a 1-7 mark against Iowa and Wisconsin in eight tries. But there’s reason to believe 2021 could be the breakout year for Minnesota. Those outside the program aren’t buying that notion, though, as early predictions have the Gophers finishing fourth in the Big Ten West.

We’ll know a lot more about the Gophers and 2021 after they face the Buckeyes, and they’re embracing the opportunity.

"Playing college football, you look for the opportunity to play the best of the best, and that's certainly Ohio State. But for us, right now we've got to focus on ourselves one day at a time to give ourselves the best chance to be successful come September 2," quarterback Tanner Morgan said. "But we're excited for the opportunity for the challenge to play Ohio State and that's what you want. You want to play the best of the best, and that's certainly them."

Minnesota returns almost its entire offense from last season, with only Rashod Bateman gone to the NFL. The entire offensive line is back, and it’s filled with fifth, sixth and even seventh year starters. It’s a group that includes Conner Olson, Blaise Andries, Curtis Dunlap Jr., Danielle Fa’alele, Sam Schlueter and John Michael Schmitz. The line also got playing time last year from Aireontae Ersery, Axel Ruschmeyer and Nathan Boe.

Dunlap missed 2020 due to injury, and Fa’alele is back after opting out due to COVID-19 reasons. The Gophers also bring back Big Ten Running Back of the Year Mo Ibrahim, who led the league in rushing (1,076 yards) and rushing touchdowns (15) in seven games last season, and Chris Autman-Bell will lead a talented receiver corps.

On defense, the Gophers have veterans back at every level after going through struggles to start 2020, and getting better throughout the season. The defensive line has plenty of talent and experience between Esezi Otomewo, Boye Mafe, Clemson transfer Nyles Pinckney, Micah Dew-Treadway and DeAngelo Carter.

At linebacker, they’re led by Mariano Sori-Marin, and Braelin Oliver is back from a knee injury. Others who saw playing time last year include Josh Aune, Donald Willis, James Gordon and Cody Lindenberg, and they added transfer Jack Gibbens. The secondary will be led by veterans Coney Durr and Jordan Howden. Terrell Smith made a splash in spring football, and they bring back Tyler Nubin.

The Gophers have 10 starters back on each side of the football, and at least 11 players who were seniors last year and returned, retaining eligibility for another year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We have a lot of depth and I think that's critical. Any time you want to be a really good football team, the deeper you are, the better you are. And this is going to be one of the deeper teams that we have, which gives us the best chance to be as successful as this team can possibly be," Fleck said. That's all we can ask. What that looks like, we'll find out."