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Minnesota Football: End of era for Big Ten is also inflection point for P.J. Fleck

Change is coming. Will P.J. Fleck change with it?

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Gophers lost more than Paul Bunyan’s Axe on Saturday.

Minnesota also closed the book on their last opportunity to win the Big Ten West.

The Gophers had 10 opportunities over the last decade to punch their ticket to the Big Ten Championship in Indianapolis since the East and West divisions were established in 2014. They fell short of the goal line in all of them. The closest Minnesota came to a division title was in 2019, when losses to Iowa and Wisconsin spoiled what could have been a dream season.

This season represented the Big Ten West’s swan song as the conference moves to dissolve its divisions when it adds Oregon, Washington, USC, and UCLA and expands to 18 teams next year. Long maligned as inferior to the East, the West lived up to its billing as the black sheep of the Big Ten this year, finishing with a collective winning percentage of .512 across its seven teams.

The pièce de résistance? The division champion Iowa Hawkeyes, who managed to win 10 games in spite of an offense that ranks 130th nationally in total offense and saw the offensive coordinator fired midseason by the interim athletic director. They also won most of their games by the skin of their teeth, with an average margin of victory of 7.9 points in seven conference wins.

The point is, winning the West was a low bar that the Gophers were never able to clear. They came close once under Jerry Kill and on a couple occasions under P.J. Fleck, but as the saying goes, close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.

Now what?

The bar is not getting any lower. For many Gopher fans, the bar seems hopelessly out of reach, at least if you’re hoping to see Minnesota competing for a conference championship. Now, there are no guarantees as far as how the new additions will fare in the Big Ten. Nebraska was once touted as “the Big Ten’s new bully” by Sports Illustrated, but in 13 seasons, the Huskers have failed to win the conference and have even finished below .500 in each of the last seven years.

But there are headwinds working against the Gophers.

Recruiting has plateaued under Fleck. His current class ranks 30th nationally and 9th in the Big Ten, according to 247 Sports, though that is likely to change (and not in a positive direction) as other programs race to sew up their classes ahead of Early Signing Day on Dec. 20. But of the seven classes he has signed at Minnesota, none have ranked in the Top 25, with three 38th-place finishes in 2018, 2020, and 2021 representing his highest-ranked classes. None of his classes have ranked higher than 7th (2018) in the Big Ten.

Then there is also the issue of retention, which has become a challenge for programs across the country in the wake of NIL and immediate eligibility being granted for first-time transfers. Minnesota saw 22 scholarship players transfer after the 2021 season, and then 19 left the program after the 2022 season. Even though the portal giveth as well as taketh, losing nearly an entire recruiting class of players each offseason is not sustainable.

The Gophers felt the brunt of it this season, as the offseason transfers of Braelen Oliver and Donald Willis left the program razor thin at linebacker. Injuries to Cody Lindenberg and Maverick Baranowski eventually resulted in true freshman Matt Kingsbury and redshirt freshman walk-on Tyler Stolsky seeing significant snaps late in the season. The secondary also suffered from the departures of cornerback Beanie Bishop and safety Michael “Flip” Dixon.

Perhaps the strongest and most difficult headwind is P.J. Fleck himself. More specifically, his offensive philosophy. He has cycled through three offensive coordinators over the past four seasons and the same problem has persisted regardless of who is calling the plays. Minnesota has ranked 92nd or worse in passing offense each of the last four seasons, forcing them to try and win games with a needlessly one-dimensional offense.

Even with highly-touted quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis under center this season and transfers Corey Crooms Jr. and Elijah Spencer brought in to bolster the receiving corps, the passing offense has been grounded, averaging 153.2 passing yards per game.

Then there is Fleck’s seemingly laissez-faire approach to special teams, an ineffectual unit whose struggles have been well documented on this site and elsewhere.

If “elite” is the standard to which Fleck aspires, he has a lot of work to do.

Now, I’m not among the Gopher fans calling for him to be fired. I think that would be foolish. It is difficult to win consistently at this program, and Fleck has won a not insignificant amount of games in seven seasons here. Bad seasons like this one are also bound to happen throughout the tenure of any head coach. He has earned the opportunity to right the ship.

But perhaps the most difficult challenge ahead for Fleck will be overcoming apathy.

This is a November that Gopher fans — already traumatized by the horrors of this football program’s past — won’t soon forget. The game-winning 46-yard touchdown pass surrendered to a second-string quarterback in the final minute of a loss to Illinois. Being obliterated by a bad Purdue team to the tune of 49 points and 600+ yards of total offense. The blowout loss to Ohio State. Then finally watching as Wisconsin scored 21 unanswered points to re-take Paul Bunyan’s Axe.

Minnesota has an opportunity to cap this season with an improbable win after being gifted bowl eligibility thanks to the dearth of bowl-eligible teams, a game-winning 51-yard field goal by Hawaii on Saturday, and the Gophers’ Academic Progress Rating. But after Fleck and co. are done celebrating a win over a MAC team in the Quick Lane Bowl, that’s when the real work begins.

The Big Ten and college football are about to change. Fleck must change with it.