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A look back at the 2019 updgrade/downgrade predictions for the offense

Leading into the 2019 season we published some upgrade/downgrade posts, how accurate were we?

NCAA Football: Outback Bowl-Minnesota vs Auburn Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

Most years I will do an upgrade/downgrade series of posts. Looking at who is gone, who is returning and if we think that each position group is going to be an upgrade or a downgrade from the prior year.

Simple enough.

But what we never do is go back to see if I was close, or if your collective voting was close. Now is as good a time as any to take a look back and check for accuracy. As I write this intro, I have yet to go back and even look at last year’s posts, so I really have no idea how accurate I was or not. But here goes.

QUARTERBACK (link)

My Prediction: Upgrade
Voting Prediction: Upgrade (85%)

Comment Highlight: I was going to make fun of Wohlf for suggesting that in an ideal world Jacob Clark wins the job. But I’ll give Rencito props for this, “Morgan threw as many TD passes in 35 less attempts, completed 58.6% of his passes vs Zack’s 51.9%, and went 4-2 against P5 teams while Zack’s only wins were against non-conference opponents. I know those aren’t everything and QB wins don’t tell the whole story, but I just felt Morgan’s play bested Zack last season and based on how they looked in games I’d go with Morgan.

Quarterback has seen dramatic improvement in the three years of PJ Fleck. 2017 was ugly, 2018 was actually pretty good and then 2019 was astonishingly elite. Early in August, Zach Annexstad went down with a season ending injury, Tanner Morgan took the job and turned in the best season we have seen from a Gopher quarterback in decades (apologies to Adam Weber).

Was this an upgrade from 2018 to 2019? DUH!

Was I right?

Sort of. I predicted Annexstad would be the starter. Maybe he would have been, he did earn it in 2018, though it’s hard to imagine now that Morgan would have been the backup.

The real debate is how much of an upgrade will it be? Are Annexstad and and Morgan both solid quarterbacks who are going to essentially be game managers? Or is one (or both) of them capable of being a strong leader on this team with the capability of winning a game with their arm?

Turns out that Morgan was certainly capable of winning games with his arm. This team clearly relied on the passing game and leadership of Morgan. And clearly an upgrade.

RUNNING BACK (link)

My Prediction: Upgrade
Voting Prediction: Upgrade (92%)

Comment Highlight: DMC511 “Only 2 backs with 1000 yard seasons But this group is probably the best RB stable in the country.

Much like quarterback, this was considered an upgrade just because everyone was back while getting Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks back healthy. I predicted an upgrade, you all did too.

But were we right? Sort of? Overall we went from 2,700 yards rushing to 2,300. But our leading rushing was right around 1,100 with our second leading rusher around 600 in both years. While the 2019 offense ran more rushing plays (both in total and as a % of total plays), this offense much more reliant on the passing game for success.

Upgrade? Yards by running back were up and this crew remained healthy. Overall, it was an upgrade, though pretty slight in my opinion.

OFFENSIVE LINE (link)

My Prediction: Upgrade
Voting Prediction: Upgrade (64%)

Comment Highlight: OldTimer78, “My biggest concern is Sam (Schlueter). He was a swinging gate last year before being replaced by Faalele. What has he done to improve? Especially playing LT as you note.

This was the first position group that had to actually replace starters. From 2018 to 2019 they had to replace LT and C, a couple key positions along the line. The first few games of the year, this unit struggled. Unable to get much push or protect the quarterback against Georgia Southern had some of us nervous (and some were really nervous).

But this crew of a “starting 6” recovered beautifully and had a very nice season. Sam Schlueter rebounded from a poor 2018 to be very good at LT. And all 5 regular starters earned All Conference or honorable mention from the Big Ten coaches and media.

Upgrade, for sure. No surprise that with upgraded performances all across the offensive line, the quarterback had a breakout season and the entire offense was as good as we’ve seen since Glen Mason.

TIGHT END

My Prediction: Upgrade
Voting Prediction: Upgrade (76%)

Comment Highlight: Slugrat with this elite take, “This is my “non-elite football mind” take on TEs in our offense. Feel free to put me in my place:

I think in this offense, the TEs will forever be used for blocking and check downs. After watching this scheme for two seasons now, it appears to be that the entire strategy (in the pass game) is to throw that 10-15 yard slant over the middle after fooling the LBs into thinking a run play is happening. So the issue with the TE is two-fold. We probably want them to behave as if they are run-blocking…and even if they release typically the middle of the field is last spot you want them clogging up. Which kind of leaves them to either flare out to the flat as a 2nd/3rd option or bust directly up-field to expose over aggressive safeties pinching in. That last option requires a very dynamic/athletic player. Maybe BSF is that guy. We will see.

In the passing game, this unit was largely not utilized again. In 2018 tight ends had 6 catches and 1 touchdown. Those numbers jumped to 10 catches and 2 touchdowns in 2019.

Like every other group on the offense, everyone returned and it was expected to be an upgrade. It was, though you never really noticed it as tight end was not incorporated into the Kirk Ciarrocca offense. They were critical to the blocking portion of the offense and saw their receiving numbers increase.

So this was an upgrade or at least neutral, but I think we can give it an upgrade. Was I right in my prediction? Mostly, thought I anticipated a big increase in production, which didn’t really happen.

WIDE RECEIVER

My Prediction: Upgrade
Voting Prediction: I don’t think I put a poll on this one

Comment Highlight: amiller92, “Autman-Bell made some impressive plays last year. And he’s the third guy. This is going to be a fun group.

This was CLEARLY an upgrade over 2018 as Tyler Johnson and Rashad Bateman was the first Big Ten receiving duo to each have 1,000 yards in the same season. They were just fantastic last year.

Bateman is going to likely be the complimentary receiver who looks to make a big splash in the Big Ten as a sophomore. Likely will eat into Johnson’s reception totals but between the two of these guys, they are really going to be a fantastic duo.

Those two combined for over 2,500 yards and 24 touchdowns.

And don’t forget about CAB. He had 28 receptions again as a sophomore, coming up huge in certain situations. This trio of receivers was one of the best in the country. So yes, this was an accurately projected as an upgrade.

CONCLUSION

A year ago I felt a little bit like too much of a homer when I predicted that all offensive position groups would be upgrades of 2018. That optimism turned out to be accurate. It was, of course, an historic season for Gopher football. Especially on the offense.

It is easy to project upgrade when everybody except 2 return from the prior season. Regression happens. One unit struggling, putting undue pressure on another unit to the point where they both struggle also happens. But this side of the ball was incredible in 2019.

The real question is, where will it upgrade and/or downgrade in 2020?