Gophers ranked 18th in first NCAA football preseason poll

TAMPA, FL - JANUARY 1: The Minnesota Gophers posed for their team photo after defeating the Auburn Tigers in the Outback Bowl on Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2020 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla. (Photo by Aaron Lavinsky/Star Tribune via Getty Images)

For the first time in 15 years, the University of Minnesota football team will have a number next to its name when the Gophers take the field for their season-opener, whenever that is.

For now, the Gophers host Florida Atlantic to open the 2020 season on Thursday, Sept. 3, at TCF Bank Stadium. That, like everything else in sports, is subject to change as the Coronavirus pandemic has the sports world shut down.

It forced Minnesota’s spring practice to be canceled after one week, and the Spring Game was also canceled. The NCAA released its first preseason rankings for the 2020 season, and Minnesota came in at No. 18 in the country. The Gophers haven’t been ranked to start a season since 2004, when they came in at No. 25.

Minnesota was ranked as high as No. 8 in the College Football Playoff rankings last year before losing at Iowa. They finished at No. 10 in the final Associated Press poll.

The Gophers are one of six Big Ten teams ranked in the NCAA's preseason poll. Ohio State is at No. 2, Penn State is No. 8, Michigan is No. 15, Wisconsin is No. 16 and Iowa is No. 24.

That 2003 campaign is also the last time the Gophers won at least 10 games in a season. They started that year 6-0 before hosting Michigan on a Friday night in the Metrodome, and fans left the game in tears and heartbreak. Glen Mason’s Gophers had a 28-7 lead in the fourth quarter before losing 38-35.

If Minnesota wins that game, it might have led to a trip to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. Regardless, the Gophers ended that season beating Oregon 31-30 to win the Sun Bowl, and finish 10-3. The Gophers were ranked No. 25 to start 2004. That season ended with a 7-5 record after a 5-0 stat, and a win over Alabama in the Music City Bowl.

Fast forward, and P.J. Fleck has the Gophers trending upward after winning 11 games in 2019 for the first time in 115 years. A year that featured a historic win over then No. 4-ranked Penn State ended with a 31-24 win over Auburn in the Outback Bowl.

The standard has been raised for Gopher football, and Fleck is emphasizing that with a “Grow Higher” motto for 2020. He’s using bamboo as a metaphor, as it takes three years to grow underground before it sprouts up. He’s also installing the windows on his metaphoric home, as outsiders are taking notice and looking in.

“The standard is the standard, and the standard is not ever going to come down,” Fleck said during spring practice before it was canceled. “This is a brand new season with brand new personalities, brand new character, brand new challenges, opportunities and we’ve got to continue to learn that as we go forward.”

He’s right. The Gophers will have a different look when they take the field in the fall. The offense should look very similar, with nine starters back, including quarterback Tanner Morgan. They’ll be working under co-coordinators Matt Simon and Mike Sanford Jr.

The defense has to replace seven starters, but will have continuity back in defensive coordinator Joe Rossi. One thing the team made very clear while still practicing: Last year was last year.

“I feel like everybody on the outside world knows that it’s a new season. Like Coach Fleck said, nothing we did last year, you never know what can happen this year. We’re focused on 2020 and that’s our vision right now,” Big Ten Receiver of the Year Rashod Bateman said during spring practice.

Bateman, like most of his teammates, is back home and finishing his sophomore year with classes online due to Coronavirus. Players have been given in-home workouts to do, and with the rest of spring football canceled, Fleck doesn’t know if he’ll get it back. They’re relegated to team meetings via video chat, and going to the phone to text and call future recruits.

There’s a very real chance it will be the start of the fall season the next time the full roster takes the field together. We know this much, they’ll be ranked.