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Minnesota Football: Can the 2021 season be elite?

Revisiting the ceiling for the 2021 Gophers

Minnesota v Rutgers Photo by Corey Perrine/Getty Images

Spring football is in the books, the weirdness of the 2020 season is behind us and we are now in that lull of the calendar year where we are looking ahead to the next season but it is still months away.

Last July I wrote a post looking into the crystal ball at the 2021 season and how it could be a very special season. The 2019 season was truly elite. The full 13 game schedule was one hell of a ride and although they came 1 game shy of playing in Pasadena, they did end the season by beating a very good Auburn team in the Outback Bowl.

2020? Well, we can all agree that 2020 was weird. But it was important for this program. It was important, particularly for the defense, for this team to gain valuable experience heading into 2021.

So the question remains...can the 2021 season be another elite season? As we sit here in May can we whisper the words, “Rose Bowl” without too much fear of being laughed at?

I thought a year ago that 2021 might be special and today I am even more convinced. Maybe don’t shout “Rose Bowl” from rafters of The Barn, but you can say the words with a little bit of confidence that it really isn’t out of the question. Here are a few reasons why.

Offensive continuity at the most important positions

Particularly in college, when teams are returning an intact offensive line and a quarterback, their level of success if generally very high. But the Gopher offense isn’t just returning their 2020 starters along the OL and QB. They are returning guys who have been successful at this level and are at least 2-year starters.

I realize that many teams are returning a high number of starters, due to the extra covid year.

  • QB - Tanner Morgan (36 career starts) - All-Big Ten 2nd team (2019)and honorable mention (2020)
  • LT - Sam Schlueter (33 starts) - All-Big Ten honorable mention in both 2019 & 2020.
  • G - Connor Olson (45 starts) - Has started every game of his entire career. All-Big Ten 3rd team in 2020 and honorable mention in 2019 and 2018.
  • C - John Michael Schmitz (10 starts) - 2020 All-Big Ten honorable mention.
  • G - Blaise Andries (33 starts) - All-Big Ten 3rd team in both 2020 and 2019, honorable mention in 2018.
  • RT - Daniel Faalele (19 starts) - All-Big Ten honorable mention in 2019 and 2018, very good chance of being a 1st round pick in next spring’s NFL Draft. Did not play in 2020.
  • Curtis Dunlap Jr (13 starts) - Also did not play in 2020, All-Big Ten honorable mention in 2019 and a chance at earning himself a draft slot.

You see that every one of these 7 names have been recognized as one of the better players in the Big Ten at their positions and all are back for 2021. It might be worth doing another post that compares this offensive line to some of the elite lines we had under Glen Mason.

And Morgan? Well, he already holds many single-season Gopher records for his 2019 season. Another solid season should see him at or near the top of many career records after this upcoming season.

The point here is that there is a ton of experience AND talent at quarterback and offensive line for the 2021 Gophers. And really depth as well. Whoever isn’t actually starting is still going to be a key contributor along the offensive line. And even if something should happen to Morgan, Zack Annexstad a very good option as your backup quarterback.

Oh...and let’s not forget that we have a pretty good running back as well. Mohamed Ibrahim was just the Big Ten Running Back of the Year in 2020. Behind this offensive line, he’s primed to have another monster season.

There are many reasons to be very excited about this Gopher offense and what it can do in 2021. It absolutely should be one of the most balanced and productive offenses in the Big Ten.

But I’m not done.

The Defense

Not nearly as accomplished as most of the offense, but 2020 was a vital year for the Gopher defense to get itself ready for 2021.

Was the 2020 defense one of the top units in the conference? No.

But are they returning several All-Big Ten award winners? Also, no.

While we know what to expect with the Gopher offense, it is the defense that really should be using the experienced gained in 2020 as a springboard into 2021.

In a lot of ways this feels like the turning point the Gopher defense hit after the Illinois game in 2018, the one that got Robb Smith fired. That 2018 defense had a number of guys who had seen plenty of reps, but just weren’t quite ready to put it all together and become a very good defense. Joe Rossi got the pieces to work together, guys were handling their jobs and 2019 was an excellent defense.

This last fall the Gopher D gave up 30 points and over 415 yards per game, which was over a touchdown and 100 yards more per game than they allowed in 2019. Clearly the defense saw a pretty significant drop-off last year. But remember that they lost several starters. Antoine Winfield Jr, Carter Coughlin, Chris Williamson and Kamal Martin were all drafted from that 2019 defense. With Sam Renner and Winston DeLattiboudere, major contributors, also being lost to graduation.

With that many leaders and multi-year starters leaving, there were gaps to fill for 2020. And there were some growing pains. The hope here is that 7 games of experience gained last fall is potentially invaluable for this upcoming season.

What appears to be lacking at the moment is a clear picture of who the leaders are on this side of the ball. But the Covid season of 2020 gave several guys the chance to play, full-speed, as guys the defense was relying upon.

Boye Mafe, DeAngelo Carter, Mariano Sori-Marin, Tyler Nubin and Coney Durr are your likely candidates to step up into roles of significant contributors, but also leaders on this unit. With a few others who are potential breakout names to watch.

Can they come together? Will consistent playmakers emerge? Will this defense get back to being in the top half of the Big Ten defensively? This is the key to 2021 being a good season or a special season. My confidence level is high that there will be a significant improvement on this side of the ball.

The Schedule

Again, much like 2019, the schedule breaks in our favor. Wisconsin is at home, Nebraska is at home and you avoid 2 of the “big 3” from the East, with the one being at home.

No schedule is perfect. I’d love to get Iowa at home, of course. This may not be the best time to play Indiana (assuming they live up to the hype). But overall, This is about as nice of a schedule as you can hope for, when trying to win the West.

Let’s start with the Ohio State game. Am I crazy to think that I could be talking about the schedule being in our favor when we have the Buckeyes as a cross-over game? Well, to be honest, if I am ever going to want to face Ohio State...this is exactly the year and week and location I want it to occur.

Were the Buckeyes just national runner-ups? Yes.

Did they also lose 10 players to the NFL Draft? Also, yes.

In a year when so many Power 5 programs are returning a high number of starters, Ohio State has 10 to replace, including their superstar quarterback. And they don’t get a game to ease their new starters in, they have to travel to Minnesota in week 1. That’s good for the Gophers.

Also, Ohio State has a potential top 10 (5?) matchup with Oregon in week 2. Will there be a bit of peeking ahead in the schedule for Ohio State? Surely a team like Minnesota has no shot of beating the national runner-ups.

And lastly, Gopher fans will have gone 611 days between home games. After the Covid-season of no fans, I anticipate that Gopher fans will fill TCF Bank Stadium on September 2nd. And it will be a great atmosphere.

Do those things add up to a Gopher win? No doubt the odds will still favor the Buckeyes. But if I ever have to play Ohio State...this is the exact time and place I want to see it happen.

The rest of the schedule? It is generally favorable. A very winnable Power 5 non-conference game at Colorado should boost SOS a little bit. Two MAC home games that will likely be closer than we’d like, but should be wins. A very good shot at winning 5-straight Big Ten games (after the Ohio State opener). And then 3 tough games to round out the schedule and ultimately define the 2021 season.

At Iowa, at Indiana and home to Wisconsin are going to be the key.

The Verdict?

Is this shaping up to be another special season? Can this one be even better than 2019?

And the real question is...can this 2021 Gopher squad get to Pasadena to play January 1st in the Rose Bowl? Can we beat Ohio State in week 1, get through the season as the top team in the West, win or lose in the Big Ten Championship game and then earn the league’s Rose Bowl bid?

When we get to August and September, you will hear me preaching over and over about managing expectations. Not getting too far ahead of ourselves and enjoying the season for what it is. But today I’m looking into the crystal ball and this team appears to be shaping up very nicely to be elite.