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Minnesota Football: Gopher football 2021 looks to be another special season

Speculating about the potential of an elite 2021 season for Gopher football

Georgia Southern v Minnesota Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

You may not believe this but back in 2017 we were talking about the possibility of 2019 being a special season.

It was a Monday Perspective post where I was trying to forget the ugly circumstances of the day to daydream about the possibilities of the future.

This year isn’t a big deal. Wins are great, but it is about the process not the results. This program is being built to be elite down the road. Today, I allowed myself to indulge in some day dreaming about where the road will take us.

Basically I was pointing out that the wide receivers would be elite, the offensive line was going to be more experienced and the defense was going to be loaded with talent. I was mostly right, even while being (VERY) wrong about quarterback and not seeing the impact of guys like Daniel Faalele (who wasn’t committed at the time of the article) and Rashod Bateman. But overall, turns out 2019 was pretty special.

Now I sit, basking in the sun of that 2019 season (while also lamenting the ugly circumstances of the day) and am daydreaming about 2021.

Am I skipping 2020 because I don’t think there will be football? No, that’s not it. I think 2020 will be a good team. But I think 2021 has the potential to be another elite team. A special season. A season where the Rose Bowl is right there for the taking.

Two key caveats as we discuss why I believe 2021 will be special. First, I’m counting on only Bateman leaving early for the NFL. More on this below, but if 3 or 4 guys leave for the draft after the 2020 season, then that changes the 2021 outlook. Secondly, the 2020 season is important for this 2021 prediction. Again, more detail below but a number of guys getting valuable experience against Big Ten opponents is important.

I am excited for 2020, which will be great. But I’m ecstatic for 2021, here’s why.

So many returning starters!

As mentioned, the allure of the NFL is going to be the key question here. Who will earn the right to leave early for the NFL Draft? For this exercise, I’m assuming that Rashod Bateman is the only one who leaves early for the NFL. This seems like a certainty. Bateman enters 2020 on all the watch-lists and top returning player lists all over the place.

But guessing at who emerges in the 2020 season to up their draft stock is a fool’s errand. So for now, we will assume they are back. Could Tanner Morgan, Daniel Faalele, Curtis Dunlap Jr, Blaise Andries or Benjamin St. Juste turn in great 2020 seasons that make it a tough decision whether or not to return for one more season? Yes, not only is it possible but I think losing someone else is likely. But I’m not guessing at who that will be, so for now we will assume these guys return.

It seems very likely that the Gophers will have to replace only 5 starters. Sam Schleuter at LT and Bateman at WR are basically the only guys you have to replace on offense. Connor Olson also graduates, but I’m going to count John Michael-Schmitz as his replacement and he’s essentially at starter.

Defensively the staff has to replace both defensive tackles as trasnfers Keonte Schad and Micah Dew-Treadway will have to move on. And then Coney Durr will also be graduating. The rest all return.

Offense is going to be very experienced

Tanner Morgan as a senior who has started every game for 2.5 years along with the vast majority of an offensive line who has started for the same amount of time? Yes please! Mohammed Ibrahim as a senior with a host of talented young backs behind him? You return all of your TEs.

And the biggest question is who replaces Bateman? And the answer is that you don’t. But you will have a couple of senior receivers in Chris Autman-Bell and Demetrius Douglas who are more than capable along with several young receivers looking to break out.

With the offense, you aren’t just returning guys who we expect to be starting in 2020. We are returning guys who were major contributors to the success of 2019. This will be the third year of starting for Morgan, Autman-Bell, Paulson, Blaise Andries, Chris Dunlap Jr, and Faalele. Then guys like Douglas, Schmitz and Ibrahim have been seeing regular playing time, if not exactly starting consistently. This offense won’t need 2020 to show if it will be capable of something special in 2021. We’ve already seen it.

And there’s room for one or two guys to emerge that we are not currently counting on. Could Cam Wiley or Ky Thomas emerge at RB? We do need someone to lock down LT. Does Brevyn Span-Ford become an elite TE weapon? Is Daniel Jackson our next drafted receiver? One guy blowing up only makes this unit better.

2020 is crucial for the 2021 Defense

The defense will return a lot of starters from 2020, but this side of the ball has more question marks. From 2019 to 2021, the defense will see 9 new starters, many of them getting their first significant playing time in 2020.

The defense is really looking for two things in 2020 if the 2021 unit is going to be elite. First, basically everyone needs the experience. St. Juste and Jordan Howden are multi-year starters. Mariano Sori-Marin and Terrel Smith have seen playing time. But most everyone else is going to take some seasoning. New starters at linebacker, defensive end and safety are

Secondly, there needs to be a name or two who emerge to anchor and lead this defense. Two years ago it was pretty easy to identify Carter Coughlin, Thomas Barber and Antoine Winfield Jr as leaders of what would be the 2019 defense. Much harder to name who will be the leaders in production and reliability in 2021. But there are some well-qualified candidates.

St. Juste is the safest bet to be a leader defensively. Tyler Nubin has the talent and should earn the opportunity to be an impact player at safety. He steps into Winfield’s spot and could emerge as an All-Big Ten caliber safety as well. Boye Mafe will be getting consistent playing time and has the freakish abilities to be a stud at defensive end. And there are are a few names at linebacker who really may become elite at their position.

But we need 2020 to see who emerges and fills the void. A lot of 2020 experience will return in 2021 but how good that talent is and who leads is to be determined. This is when the depth of recruiting since Fleck arrived is going to be tested.

The schedule

Once again it breaks in our favor, a little. Anytime you get Wisconsin and Nebraska at home, that is going to be good for your season. You still have to play road games in the Big Ten but if I do, I’ll take trips to Northwestern, Purdue and Indiana as 34 of my away games. Just like 2019, Iowa City is calling and will be a challenge.

But the interesting part of the schedule is what we see early. Week one of the season is Ohio State coming to TCF Bank Stadium. It is silly to look at who OSU will be replacing but getting the Buckeyes in week one, at home is at least interesting. Perhaps getting them before they get a few games under their belt is an opportunity. But who knows. That is obviously a challenging game and what a way to start the season.

Then week 3 is interesting as well with a trip to Colorado on the agenda. With 2020 being the first year under head coach Karl Dorrell, 2021 might be a good time face the Buffs and notch a P5 win.

Not planning to speculate wins and losses at this point. But the schedule, for the most part, is in our favor once again. Ohio State is a challenge, a P5 non-conference road game isn’t easy and history has proven that Iowa on the road is never easy.

But the talent and experience is going to be there for Gopher football. 2021 shapes up to be special again. And the Rose Bowl is not a part of the College Football Playoff.