MINNEAPOLIS (FOX 9) - The projections are mixed as PJ Fleck prepares to embark on his third season with the University of Minnesota football program.
It will be all positivity and optimism later this week as the Gophers attend Big Ten Media Day festivities in Chicago. Fleck will be joined by seniors Tyler Johnson, Carter Coughlin and sophomore Mohamed Ibrahim as well as Casey O'Brien.
Johnson and Coughlin were both named to national watch lists on Monday. Johnson was named to the Maxwell Award watch list, which goes to America's College Player of the Year. He's one of 80 on the list, and one of 12 receivers. Coughlin was named to the Chuck Bednarik Award watch list. The honor goes to the Defensive Player of the Year. He's one of 23 defensive ends on the list, and one of six in the Big Ten.
Some national pundits are optimistic about the Gophers' chances to make a splash in 2019. Others, not so much.
ESPN's Football Power Index recently released its projections for the 2019 season. They have Minnesota's ceiling at about eight wins, not including a potential bowl game. They give the Gophers a 7.9 percent chance to win the Big Ten title. Michigan is the heavy favorite to win the Big Ten at 48.2 percent.
Minnesota's biggest competition in the West, according to ESPN, is Iowa. They give the Hawkeyes an eight percent chance to win the Big Ten. Their analytics, which are based off win probability, project that the Gophers could win as many as 10 games this season.
Athlon Sports still has its doubts when it comes to Year 3 of the Fleck era. They're projecting a fifth place finish for Minnesota in the Big Ten West with a 4-5 mark, 7-5 overall. They like Nebraska to win the Big Ten West, with Iowa, Wisconsin and Northwestern to follow. They project the Gophers to face Washington State in the Redbox Bowl on Dec. 30.
Fleck has said it from the first day he was hired to take over the Gophers program. He aims to compete for Big Ten championships and national titles, but it's going to take time to do it his way. He went 5-7 in his first season.
Last year, the program appeared to turn a corner. In their final regular season game and last chance to gain bowl eligibility, Minnesota dominated Wisconsin in a 37-15 victory. It was their first time beating the Badgers, hoisting Paul Bunyan's Axe, in 14 years. It's the signature win of the Fleck era so far.
The Gophers then faced the top rushing offense in the nation, Georgia Tech, and dominated in a 34-10 victory in the Quick Lane Bowl.
That Minnesota defense, under new coordinator Joe Rossi, allowed just 25 points in its last two games and returns seven of the 11 starters from the Quick Lane Bowl.
On offense, Minnesota's success will hinge largely on its starting quarterback. Just like last year, it will be an open competition mostly between Zack Annexstad and Tanner Morgan. Annexstad won the job in fall camp and started seven games. He played in eight before being sidelined with a midsection injury and finished with more than 1,200 yards passing and nine touchdowns.
Morgan went 4-2 as a starter, and in his first start against Indiana, threw for 302 yards and three touchdowns. He also helped lead the Gophers to their first win at Wisconsin since 1994. Morgan finished last season completing 58.5 percent of his passes for 1,401 yards and nine touchdowns.
Regardless of who is behind center, the top wide receiver targets will be Johnson and Rashod Bateman. Johnson was a First Team All-Big Ten selection last year after setting single-season school records in yardage (1,169) and touchdowns (12). His 78 catches were the second-most in a season in program history. Bateman set freshman records with 51 catches for 704 yards. His six touchdowns were the second-most in program history among freshmen.
The Gophers' will be deepest in the offensive backfield. Mohamed Ibrahim played in 10 games and rushed for more than 1,100 yards with nine touchdowns. He'll likely be the No. 3 option at running back this season, with Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks both back from season-ending injuries. Smith will likely surpass 3,000 career rushing yards in Minnesota's season-opener.
Brooks has more than 1,800 career rushing yards in 28 games, and ran for 154 yards with a touchdown against Indiana in his only game last season before suffering a knee injury.
The talent is there, the potential is there. Can it translate to more wins for the Gophers in 2019? We'll find out starting Aug. 29, when Minnesota opens the regular season against South Dakota State at TCF Bank Stadium.