I realize that a few more months of winter and all of spring and summer are what stand between us and another season of college football. But we’ve closed the book on last season, haven’t we? Then it’s not too early to start thinking about next season. And I can’t think of a better topic of discussion than the twelve teams that will look to pump the brakes on the Minnesota Golden Gophers’ third season under head coach P.J. Fleck.
South Dakota State Jackrabbits
2018 Record: 10-3 (6-2, 2nd MVFC)
Postseason: L 21-44 vs North Dakota State, FCS Semifinals
Record vs FBS (since 2009): 1-7
Returning Starters: 8 Offense, 7 Defense
Last Meeting: Minnesota 16, South Dakota State 13 (2009)
The good news: The Jackrabbits’ prolific senior quarterback Taryn Christion has taken his last snap under center for South Dakota State after three record-breaking years as starter.
Three of their four starters in the secondary from last season will need to be replaced, as cornerback Jordan Brown and safeties Brandon Snyder and Makiah Slade all graduate. Brown was the Jackrabbits’ best cover corner, leading all other defensive backs with 12 pass break-ups.
The bad news: Don’t let their abysmal record against Power 5 FBS programs lull you into thinking the Jackrabbits are a pushover. Make no mistake, this is an opponent that Minnesota should beat, but do not underestimate an FCS program that hasn’t missed the postseason since 2011 and is coming off back-to-back trips to the playoff semifinals.
Christion was the star of the show on offense for South Dakota State, but he was surrounded by a formidable supporting cast that remains intact for 2019. Leading rusher Pierre Strong is back after recording 1,149 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns as a redshirt freshman. South Dakota State also returns their top five leading receivers from last season, including rising junior Cade Johnson, who led the team with 67 receptions for 1,332 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns. Three of five starters return on the offensive line, as well.
Leading tackler Christian Rozenboom is back for his senior season at linebacker after tallying 105 total tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, three forced fumbles, and two interceptions last year for the Jackrabbits. The entire starting defensive line returns, headlined by senior defensive end Ryan Earith and his nine tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, and nine quarterback hurries.
2018 Record: 12-2 (7-1, 1st MWC West)
Postseason: W 31-20 vs Arizona State, Las Vegas Bowl
Final 2018 S&P+ Ranking: 9th
Record vs Power 5 (since 2009): 6-16
Returning Starters: 3 Offense, 6 Defense
Returning Production: 34% Offense, 41% Defense
Last Meeting: Minnesota 21, Fresno State 14 (2018)
The good news: Much of the offensive firepower that helped Fresno State climb atop the Mountain West Conference last year and finish the season in the Top 25 is gone. Starting quarterback Marcus McMaryion graduated. Star receiver KeeSean Johnson is NFL bound. And all but one of the Bulldog’s five starting offensive linemen from last season are gone. The Bulldogs also lost their offensive coordinator to Indiana.
Fresno State will have holes to fill on defense, as well. Four of their top five tacklers from last season are gone, including leading tackler and linebacker Jeff Allison, who is leaving early for the NFL. Junior safety Mike Bell also declared for the NFL Draft.
The bad news: Junior running backs Ronnie Rivers and Jordan Mims will be back to lead the Bulldogs on offense after combining for 1,776 all-purpose yards together as sophomores. KeeSean Johnson was by far the Bulldogs’ most dangerous weapon in the passing game, but 6’5’’, 230-lb. tight end Jared Rice emerged as a receiving threat, finishing second on the team with 55 receptions for 664 receiving yards and three touchdowns.
Fresno State returns their entire starting front four on the defensive line. Redshirt senior Mykal Walker will be expected to lead that group after finishing second on the team in total tackles with 87 and recording a team-best 14 tackles for loss. Senior safety Juju Hughes will be leaned upon as the Bulldogs find replacements for Bell and starting cornerback Anthoula Kelly. Hughes tied with Kelly for the team lead in interceptions with four.
2018 Record: 10-3 (6-2, 3rd Sun Belt East)
Postseason: W 23-21 vs Eastern Michigan, Camellia Bowl
Final 2018 S&P+ Ranking: 63rd
Record vs Power 5 (since 2009): 1-12
Returning Starters: 7 Offense, 7 Defense
Returning Production: 76% Offense, 74% Defense
Last Meeting: None
The good news: Leading rusher Wesley Fields and his back-up Monteo Garrett are both collecting their diplomas. The pair accounted for 50 percent of the Eagles’ rushing yards last season. Fields was also the team’s leading receiver with 10 receptions for 237 receiving yards. Georgia Southern will need to replace two senior starters on the offensive line.
The Eagles aren’t losing much on defense, but the graduation of safety Joshua Moon will leave tough shoes to fill. Moon led the team with 71 tackles last season. Sean Freeman, the other starting safety, is also graduating, leaving both safety spots vacant. Sack leader and defensive end Logan Hunt and top linebacker Tomarcio Reese fill out the rest of the departures.
The Eagles have beaten one Power 5 program in the last decade, and that was a Will Muschamp-coached Florida team in 2013 that finished the season 4-8. The Gators ended the year on a seven-game skid, including a 26-20 loss at home to Georgia Southern.
The bad news: Yes, the Gopher defense fared well against the Georgia Tech triple-option offense in the Quick Lane Bowl, but it is important to remember that the Eagles run a different version of the option offense. Georgia Southern head coach Chad Lunsford and offensive coordinator Bob DeBesse have put their own unique stamp on the traditional under center option offense, frequently operating out of shotgun and pistol formations. It’s tough to argue with the results, as the Eagles were a Top 10 rushing offense last season, averaging 266.2 yards per game.
Fields and Garrett are gone, but field general and quarterback Shai Werts returns as the Eagles’ leading passer and second leading rusher from last season.
On the other side of the ball, junior defensive end Raymond Johnson III is a forced to be reckoned with on the edge, leading the team with eight tackles for loss a season ago. Senior cornerbacks Monquavion Brinson and Kindle Vildor will help alleviate some of the attrition in the secondary, as the latter led the team in pass break-ups and interceptions.
2018 Record: 6-7 (5-4, T-2nd B1G West)
Postseason: L 14-63 vs Auburn, Music City Bowl
Final 2018 S&P+ Ranking: 52nd
Home Record vs Minnesota (since 2000): 6-2
Returning Starters: 3 Offense, 9 Defense
Returning Production: 37% Offense, 72% Defense
Last Meeting: Minnesota 41, Purdue 10 (2018)
The good news: The 2019 Boilermakers will resemble the 2018 Gophers, at least in terms of youth and inexperience on offense. Starting quarterback David Blough graduates, and it is unclear whether his successor will be former co-starter Elijah Sindelar or an inexperienced underclassman. Following Blough out the door are the Boilermakers’ top two rushers, D.J. Knox and Markell Jones, who combined to produce 84 percent of the team’s rushing yards last season. Four of their five starting offensive linemen are also graduating.
On defense, Purdue must replace senior cornerback Antonio Blackman and senior safety Jacob Thieneman. The Boilermakers got a preview of life without the latter when Thieneman went down late last season due to injury and the defense experienced a precipitous decline as a result. And while Purdue returns all but two starters on defense, this is a unit that allowed Auburn to rack up 56 points before halftime of the Music City Bowl.
The bad news: All-Big Ten wide receiver Rondale Moore is back to give opposing defenses nightmares after a sensational freshman season that saw him rack up 1,258 receiving yards and 12 touchdown receptions, to go along with 213 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns.
As I mentioned previously, the Boilermakers return the bulk of their starting defense. Senior linebacker Markus Bailey is the leader of an experienced linebacker corps that also includes juniors Derrick Barnes and Cornel Jones. But given how the defense performed down the stretch last year, I’m wondering if a few starting spots aren’t up for grabs. The Purdue coaching staff may opt to trade experience for talent at some positions.
The Boilermakers are fresh off signing a Top 25 recruiting class, according to 247 Sports, and not to mention one of their best recruiting classes in program history, at least in terms of internet recruiting evaluations. Don’t be surprised if more than a few of their talented true freshman see the field this fall, especially on the offensive side of the ball.
2018 Record: 4-8 (2-7, 7th B1G West)
Final 2018 S&P+ Ranking: 103rd
Road Record vs Minnesota (since 2000): 2-6
Returning Starters: 7 Offense, 10 Defense
Returning Production: 70% Offense, 81% Defense
Last Meeting: Illinois 55, Minnesota 31 (2018)
The good news: Robb Smith is no longer the defensive coordinator at Minnesota. Fleck bid farewell to the man responsible for allowing the Fighting Illini to run roughshod over the Gopher defense last season, to the tune of 430 rushing yards and an average of 12.3 yards per carry. Robb will not be missed.
The revolving door at quarterback will continue for another season at Illinois. A.J. Bush will graduate after one mediocre season under center that saw him split duties at times with true freshman M.J. Rivers. Rivers, now a sophomore, would seem to be the favorite to seize the starting spot, but he’ll have to fend off a field of challengers that includes highly-touted incoming freshman Isaiah Williams.
Linebacker Del’Shawn Phillips is the lone departure on defense, but leaves a sizable hole after tying for the team lead in tackles with 75, to go along with four interceptions and one forced fumble. The rest of the Fighting Illini defense returns, but the unit was one of the worst in the country last year, both against the run and the pass.
The bad news: Robb Smith may be gone, but unfortunately the Illinois playmakers he allowed to run wild did not follow him out the door. Running back Reggie Corbin opted to return for his senior season after rushing for 1,085 yards and nine touchdowns as a junior. The Fighting Illini have a stable of talented backs to complement Corbin, including juniors Ra’Von Bonner and Mike Epstein.
Leading receiver Ricky Smalling will lead a wide receiver corps that has been all potential and very little production up to this point. Smalling recorded 33 receptions for 406 receiving yards and five touchdowns last season, and he was Illinois’ best receiver. We’ll see if Oklahoma grad transfer A.D. Miller can spark what has been a lackluster group.
The aforementioned maligned defense returns all but one starter, but seven of the returning starters were either a freshman or sophomore last year. So there is a chance that the Illinois defense will improve after a season of growing pains under their belt.
Will this be the year whatever Illinois head coach Lovie Smith has been building toward finally comes to fruition? I suppose stranger things have happened.
2018 Record: 4-8 (3-6, T-5th B1G West)
Final 2018 S&P+ Ranking: 56th
Road Record vs Minnesota (since 2000): 2-2
Returning Starters: 7 Offense, 6 Defense
Returning Production: 59% Offense, 55% Defense
Last Meeting: Nebraska 53, Minnesota 28 (2018)
The good news: Running back Devin Ozigbo and wide receiver Stanley Morgan have both exhausted their eligibility after what felt like decade-long careers at Nebraska. The pair led the Cornhuskers in rushing yards and receiving yards, respectively, last season. Nebraska will rely on an influx of young talent to replace them.
The Huskers will certainly feel the loss of starting linebackers Dedrick Young and Luke Gifford, the latter having contributed 13 tackles for loss as a senior. Aaron Williams and Tre Neal were two stalwarts at safety for Nebraska, and both are graduating.
The bad news: The Huskers’ 0-6 start to the Scott Frost era was merely an unexpected detour. The Nebraska faithful and the national media were soon back on the hype train, and the Huskers’ 53-28 win over the Gophers was the spark that lit the fire. Nebraska proceeded to win four of their last six games, with losses to Ohio State and Iowa that both came by five points or less. Now no Too Early Top 25 for 2019 is complete without Nebraska.
Much of that optimism stems from the play of quarterback Adrian Martinez. Even as a true freshman, Martinez was a dynamic athlete for the Huskers, completing 64.6 percent of his passes, throwing for 2,617 yards and 17 passing touchdowns, and rushing for 629 yards and eight touchdowns. He and Frost are a dream pairing for Nebraska and a nightmare for the Big Ten.
Frost will have his work cut out for him building a receiving corps, but he’ll have Minnesota native J.D. Spielman back to lead the group as an explosive threat in the passing game.
Senior linebacker Mohamed Barry is back to lead a defense that struggled in the first half of last season but found some solid footing down the stretch. The team’s leading tackler a season ago, they’ll need Barry to hold the line for what will be a young group of linebackers. Junior cornerback Dicaprio Bootle is a boost to a secondary losing both starting safeties, as he led all other defensive backs with 15 passes defended last year.
2018 Record: 1-11 (0-9, 7th B1G East)
Final 2018 S&P+ Ranking: 116th
Home Record vs Minnesota (since 2000): 0-0
Returning Starters: 9 Offense, 5 Defense
Returning Production: 75% Offense, 44% Defense
The good news: Rutgers hasn’t fielded a competitive team in three seasons under head coach Chris Ash and last year may have been rock bottom, as the Scarlet Knights were obliterated 55-14 by fellow bottom feeder Kansas. That humiliating loss came amid an eleven-game losing streak.
Nine starters return from one of the worst offenses in the country last season, averaging 13.5 points per game. True freshman quarterback Artur Sitkowski threw 18 interceptions and four touchdowns, and no, I do not have those numbers backwards. His entire receiving corps returns, but his leading receiver — both in receptions and receiving yards — was a running back. Only one actual wide receiver caught a passing touchdown last season.
The Scarlet Knights graduate four of their top six tacklers on defense.
The bad news: Junior running back Raheem Blackshear returns after leading the Scarlet Knights in rushing yards, receptions, and receiving yards. He’ll be operating behind an offensive line that brings back all but one starter from a season ago.
2018 Record: 5-7 (3-6, 5th B1G East)
Final 2018 S&P+ Ranking: 71st
Road Record vs Minnesota (since 2000): 1-0
Returning Starters: 5 Offense, 6 Defense
Returning Production: 69% Offense, 56% Defense
Last Meeting: Maryland 42, Minnesota 13 (2018)
The good news: The D.J. Durkin era at Maryland is over, and the Terps will have to hope that all of the drama from last season follows him out the door. Head coach Mike Locksley has been brought in to right the ship. Locksley had a disastrous tenure as head coach at New Mexico from 2009-11, amassing a 2-26 record before being fired midseason in his third year with the program due to the results on the field and his personal conduct off the field. Maryland seems to have bought into the idea that a few years coaching under Nick Saban at Alabama have left Locksley a changed man — and presumably a better head coach.
Thankfully, running back Ty Johnson has finally graduated. The speedy back made life a living hell for the Gopher defense the last two seasons, carrying the ball 29 times for 253 rushing yards and two touchdowns in those two games. The Terps will also bid farewell to leading receiver Taivon Jacobs, who is graduating as well.
Locksley will need to rebuild the offensive line, as four of their five starters depart.
Defensively, Maryland will miss Illinois grad transfer and leading tackler Tre Watson at linebacker and Darnell Savage Jr. at safety. Those two graduating seniors alone accounted for a combined 166 tackles, five passes defended, and nine interceptions. Losing top pass rusher Jesse Aniebonam will hurt, as well.
The bad news: Maryland’s embarrassment of riches at running back has been weakened but not wiped out, led by sophomore Anthony McFarland, who rushed for over 1,000 yards last year. He’ll have help from junior running back Tayon Fleet-Davis.
Tyrell Pigrome returns as starting quarterback, but it’s unclear how much competition he’ll face from Kasim Hill, who tore his ACL for the second consecutive season. Whoever is under center will have the luxury of throwing to sophomore wide receiver Jeshaun Jones, who showed flashes of being a dynamic weapon last season and led the team with five touchdown receptions.
The return of linebacker Antoine Brooks Jr. will soften the blow of losing both Watson and Aniebonam, as he led the team with 9.5 tackles for loss last season. He’ll have help from senior defensive end Byron Cowart, who tallied a team-high three sacks.
2018 Record: 9-4 (6-3, 3rd B1G East)
Postseason: L 24-27 vs Kentucky, Citrus Bowl
Final 2018 S&P+ Ranking: 14th
Road Record vs Minnesota (since 2000): 2-3
Returning Starters: 6 Offense, 8 Defense
Returning Production: 44% Offense, 68% Defense
Last Meeting: Penn State 29, Minnesota 26, OT (2016)
The good news: Last season was about life after Saquon Barkley, and now the Nittany Lions will have to learn to live without three-year starting quarterback Trace McSorley. To add to the attrition, running back Miles Sanders is leaving early for the NFL. The right side of the offensive line, Connor McGovern and Ryan Bates, followed suit.
Senior defensive backs Nick Scott and Amani Oruwariye are graduating, taking with them a combined six interceptions and 19 pass break-ups from last year. Penn State will also be without the services of linebacker Koa Farmer, who also graduates.
The bad news: Sanders is gone, but running back Ricky Slade, a five-star recruit coming out of high school, is waiting in the wings to take the torch that was passed from Barkley to Sanders last season. To complement what Slade brings to the ground game, Penn State also has a young and talented group of wide receivers, led by KJ Hamler. Hamler led the Nittany Lions in receiving last year as a freshman with 42 receptions for 754 yards and five touchdowns. Sophomore tight end Pat Freiermuth also returns after hauling in eight receiving touchdowns a season ago.
Penn State loses four starters on defense, but most of the key cogs from last season’s solid unit are back, including starting linebackers and leading tacklers Micah Parsons and Jan Johnson. It’ll be a veteran defense with at least seven senior starters next season.
Defensive end Shareef Miller and his 7.5 sacks will be tough to replace, but returning defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos contributed 20 tackles for loss and eight sacks of his own last year. The Nittany Lions’ formidable defensive line will be anchored by defensive tackles Robert Windsor and Kevin Givens, who combined for 21 tackles for loss and 12.5 sacks.
2018 Record: 9-4 (5-4, T-2nd B1G West)
Postseason: W 27-22 vs Mississippi State, Outback Bowl
Final 2018 S&P+ Ranking: 22nd
Returning Starters: 6 Offense, 4 Defense
Home Record vs Minnesota (since 2000): 8-0
Returning Production: 72% Offense, 57% Defense
Last Meeting: Iowa 48, Minnesota 31 (2018)
The good news: Starting center Keegan Render, starting left guard Ross Reynolds, and starting wide receiver Nick Easley all graduate. And the Hawkeyes’ pair of All-Big Ten tight ends -- Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson -- are both leaving early for the NFL.
Hockenson, Fant, and Easley combined to account for 57 percent of the Hawkeyes’ receptions last season, 60 percent of their receiving yards, and 66 percent of their receiving touchdowns. Rising juniors Brandon Smith and Ihmir Smith-Marsette are the only returning wide receivers who recorded double-digit receptions and at least one touchdown last season.
On the defensive side of the ball, Iowa will need to replace their entire front four, with All-Big Ten defensive end Anthony Nelson leaving early for the NFL. Their top two tacklers and starting safeties, Jake Gervase and Amani Hooker, are both gone, with the latter declaring for the NFL. Senior middle linebacker Jack Hockaday is also graduating.
The bad news: Quarterback Nate Stanley returns for his senior season after throwing 26 touchdowns for the second consecutive year. The Hawkeyes also return a trio of running backs -- Mekhi Sargent, Toren Young, and Ivory Kelly-Martin -- who combined for 1,723 rushing yards on 392 attempts (4.3 yards per carry) and 16 rushing touchdowns a season ago. They’ll be rushing behind an offensive line that returns three of five starters.
The losses on the defensive line will be mitigated in part by the return of rising junior and All-Big Ten defensive end A.J. Epenesa, who led the Big Ten in sacks last season.
2018 Record: 9-5 (8-1, 1st B1G West)
Postseason: W 31-20 vs Utah, Holiday Bowl
Final 2018 S&P+ Ranking: 79th
Home Record vs Minnesota (since 2000): 5-3
Returning Starters: 6 Offense, 6 Defense
Returning Production: 53% Offense, 71% Defense
Last Meeting: Northwestern 24, Minnesota 14 (2018)
The good news: The Wildcats bid farewell to four-year starting quarterback Clayton Thorson. Leading receiver Flynn Nagel, who hauled in 68 receptions for 780 receiving yards and two touchdowns, is also collecting his diploma.
Last year’s veteran offensive line featured three senior starters, and that means there are three holes that will need to be filled for next season.
Defensively, there are players departing in every position group, with both defensive tackles graduating and linebacker Nate Hall and defensive backs Montre Hartage and Jared McGee also completing their college careers.
The bad news: Thorson is exiting stage left, but Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson is expected to take over at quarterback and will have three seasons of eligibility. We’ll see what happens when he takes the field, but Northwestern fans are understandably excited about the former Tiger. And while top target Flynn Nagel is moving on, senior wide receiver Ben Skowronek has emerged as a playmaker in the passing game. He’ll lead a receiving corps that returns five wide receivers who each recorded at least 15 receptions and 200 yards receiving last season.
Unheralded coming out of high school, Isaiah Bowser seized control of the starting running back midseason as a true freshman and never looked back, rushing for 864 yards and scoring six touchdowns in the Wildcats’ final eight games of the season.
Northwestern returns most of the key players from last season’s defense, including linebackers and leading tacklers Blake Gallagher and Paddy Fisher. Senior defensive end Joe Gaziano will continue to be a terror at the edge of the line of scrimmage, racking up 12.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks a season ago. Travis Whillock emerged down the stretch as a solid option at safety, both against the pass and defending the run. He and J.R. Pace, who himself had a breakout season, will stabilize a secondary that was beset by injuries last year.
2018 Record: 8-5 (5-4, T-2nd B1G West)
Postseason: W 35-3 vs Miami, Pinstripe Bowl
Final 2018 S&P+ Ranking: 21st
Road Record vs Minnesota (since 2000): 7-2
Returning Starters: 8 Offense, 8 Defense
Returning Production: 85% Offense, 60% Defense
Last Meeting: Minnesota 37, Wisconsin 15 (2018)
The good news: Paul Bunyan’s Axe is back where it belongs.
Quarterback Alex Hornibrook is back! The same Alex Hornibrook who threw three interceptions and lost a fumble in last year’s game against Minnesota. Badgers fans are clamoring for highly-touted incoming freshman Graham Mertz to take over under center, but we’ll see if head coach Paul Chryst decides to stick with his senior signal caller.
The Badgers’ top two receivers from last season, senior A.J. Taylor and junior Danny Davis, return, but both put up fairly pedestrian numbers as part of what was a mediocre passing game.
Three members of a unit that was touted as one of the best in the country a season ago are leaving people-sized holes on the offensive line, including early NFL entrant David Edwards.
Three of the Badgers’ four starting linebackers — T.J. Edwards, Ryan Connelly, and Andrew Van Ginkel — are gone, members of the graduating class responsible for allowing the Axe to return home. Safety D’Cota Dixon, the lone upperclassman in a secondary largely populated by freshman, is also departing. Those four also represented four of the team’s top five tacklers from last season, so replacing their production will be a tall task.
The bad news: Jonathan Taylor, one of the best running backs in the Big Ten if not the entire country, has two years of eligibility left and is coming off a season in which he rushed for 2,194 yards and 16 touchdowns. Even in the Badgers’ blowout loss to the Gophers, he was able to churn out yards, totaling up 120 rushing yards on 19 attempts.
Wisconsin started as many as five true or redshirt freshman on defense in their bowl game against Miami. Linebackers Zack Baun and Chris Orr will possibly be the only senior starters on defense next season. This is probably more appropriately categorized as mixed news, because a young defense can either mature into a solid unit or continue to be prone to the kind of mistakes you’d expect from underclassmen. We shall see what next season holds in store for the Badger defense.
I think the non-conference schedule is challenging enough that the Gophers won’t be able to sleepwalk through it, and they’ll be better for it. Emerging from that scrum 3-0 is well within the realm of possibilities and should be the expectation. Conference play is much harder to predict. The Big Ten West is wide open again. Every team has question marks. The four road trips, with maybe the exception of Rutgers, will all be treacherous, requiring the Gophers to perform well at venues where they’ve historically struggled. If Minnesota can embark on an October revenge tour against Illinois, Nebraska, and Maryland, they’ll have a lot to play for in November.
What is your expected win total for the Gophers next season?
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