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Reasonable expectations as Minnesota enters the P.J. Fleck era

What is reasonable and can we hold to it?

NCAA Football: Holiday Bowl-Minnesota vs Washington State Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

The success or failure of a season largely rests upon what was expected ahead of time. If you expect that your team is going to go 12-0 but they lose 2 games on their way to a BCS Bowl game, you’re likely disappointed. Conversely, and this is more familiar to Gopher fans, should you be coming off a 1-11 season and your team manages 6 wins and a bowl game in Detroit then you are more than likely pleased.

Of course everyone is typically somewhere in between. And that’s fine because defining success or failure of a particular season can really happen anywhere in between 1 and 12 wins. There are some who will boldly state that one should “expect” to win all of their team’s games and we shouldn’t accept mediocrity. To that I would counter that you are certainly a fan of the wrong team and there’s nothing wrong with setting reasonable expectations based on reality.

But we only have one program that we care about and this is a truly fascinating season when you look at this from the perspective of what constitutes reasonable expectations.

On the one hand you have a program that has had some success over the past four seasons.

  • 2016 - 9 wins including a 5-4 Big Ten record and a bowl win over Washington State
  • 2015 - 6-7 season where the head coach retired mid-way through the season but still resulted in the program’s first bowl win since Glen Mason beat Alabama in 2004.
  • 2014 - 8 wins
  • 2013 - 8 wins

Averaging nearly 8 wins a year and 5 straight seasons with a bowl game. Those are not typically the kind of numbers that get you fired. But there were of course a number of extenuating circumstances, not the least of which was that the administration hired a new athletic director who wanted to make his own football hire.

So he did. And on January 6th, P.J. Fleck was hired to replace Tracy Claeys.

What does all of this have to do with expectations? Everything. There are two prevailing schools of thought heading into the 2017 seasons. The first is that this team has been pretty good after it was brought back from the Tim Brewster decimation. Jerry Kill, Tracy Claeys and others built it brick by brick into a competitive Big Ten team. The other side of that is that we have a new head coach here who is implementing a brand new system while players are adjusting to his coaching style.

Looking back at all of the “true” first year coaches we have had and their first year has been rather ugly.

  • Jerry Kill - 3-9
  • Tim Brewster - 1-11
  • Glen Mason - 3-9
  • Jim Wacker - 2-9
  • John Gutekuntz - 6-6
  • Lou Holtz - 4-7

To be fair, all of those guys inherited bad teams and I would agree with a local columnist who this week ranked P.J. Fleck as the Gopher’s coach walking into the best situation in the last 70 years.

But really none of the above matters. How previous coaches fared in their first season as a Gopher’s coach is relevant other than a little bit of context. How good the teams has been over the last 4 seasons is largely irrelevant as well.

I’m not interested in raising or lowering expectations, but I am always interested in trying to find that balance of setting expectations at something that is reasonable. There are a number of facts that we really should consider as we step into 2017.

1 - The Gopher secondary is incredibly thin and inexperienced.

This was going to be a pretty significant issue regardless of the coaching staff. A couple key graduates, a few likely contributors forced to transfer and another coming off an ACL surgery means this group is very thin. What has been a real strength over the last few seasons is going to be a huge question mark.

2 - The Gopher offensive line is maybe a bigger question mark!

Also a lack of depth here, but it was already a position of concern. The secondary had been a real strength while the Gopher offense was still pretty good in spite of last year’s offensive line problems. We have a few guys back who could help make this unit stronger than the 2016 version, or maybe it struggles mightily again.

3 - We are breaking in new quarterback.

Say what you want to Mitch Leidner but this was his offense. There were things he did very well and there was no question that he took this job as his own. He was the leader of the Gopher offense for three seasons and we have no idea what we are getting into with the current co-quarterback system.

These are three significant issues facing this team. So the notion that we won 9 games last year and fired our coach, therefore this year better be just as good, isn’t reasonable. Had Tracy Claeys and his staff returned in 2017 I don’t think that 9 wins would be attainable. So in my mind, 9 wins isn’t out of the realm of possibility but I dont think it is reasonable.

On the other side of things we certainly have some strengths as well. Our running game is going to be one of the best in the Big Ten, Steven Richardson and our other defensive tackles make the defense very strong in the middle, and the linebackers are not only talented but versatile. Those are certainly strengths that give this team a chance to win quite a few games.

So the idea that just because we are going through a coaching and culture change, doesn’t mean this team is going to fall back to three or four wins. The cupboard isn’t bare. There are a few All-Big Ten caliber players on this team. The running game will be strong and the defensive front-seven is going to be very good. The talent gap overall between the Gophers and most of the rest of the Big Ten is not so wide that we cannot compete.

Which gets me back to the topic at hand...what are reasonable expectations this season?

Well, at this point we should probably look at the schedule. So we’ll look at the likely wins, the toss-ups and the likely losses.

Games We Should Win (6)

  • Buffalo
  • Oregon State
  • Middle Tennessee State
  • Maryland
  • @Purdue
  • Illinois

Games We Likely Lose (2)

  • @Michigan
  • Wisconsin

Toss-Up Games (4)

  • @ Iowa
  • Michigan State
  • Nebraska
  • @ Northwestern

It really all comes down to those four games and to be honest I think we lose most of those games (on paper). At Iowa and at Northwestern are ones where we will not be favored and those two fan bases are likely considering this game as “likely wins” on their schedule. You never know with Nebraska and I think Michigan State is the one where we’ll be favored, but I expect a bounceback year for them a little bit.

Without getting too deep into a schedule breakdown, I think that when you factor everything in, it is entirely reasonable to conclude that the 6 to 8 win range seems like reasonable expectations. That’s a wide range but I think we get to a bowl game and are not really a serious contender in the Big Ten West this season. We could very easily lose a game we are not supposed to lose and just as easily pull out an upset somewhere along the way (Iowa maybe?).

I suspect that P.J. Fleck will have his team motivated and ready. I also suspect that we will see growing pains as he builds his program for long-term success. We really shouldn’t get too caught up in the ups and downs of this season. There will be growing pains and there may be times of unexpected success.

What are my expectations for this year? Get to a bowl game and most importantly build this program for sustained success down the road. (more to come on that)