Auburn quarterback Bo Nix scrambles with the ball as Minnesota defensive lineman Boye Mafe wraps him up during the Gophers' win in the Outback Bowl. With so many key defensive departures, Mafe will be a key piece to this year's Gophers defense. (Douglas DeFelice/USA Today)

Football

Our 12th annual Top 25 countdown: No. 19 Minnesota must get defensive again in the Big Ten

Coming off perhaps the best season in school history, the Gophers must get defensive to remain relevant in the Big Ten.

Posted July 7th, 2020

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The 2020 college football season is two months away. Right? As it approaches with question marks, our 12th annual countdown series of our preseason Top 25, as selected by the American-Statesman sports staff, breaks down who we think are the top teams in the country.

Last year’s eventual College Football Playoff semifinalists ranked first, fourth, fifth and sixth in our 2019 poll.

No. 19: Minnesota

The Gophers made big strides in 2019, notching a pair of wins over top-10 teams (No. 5 Penn State and No. 9 Auburn) and dramatically improving their numbers in all major offensive and defensive metrics. But heading into the season, there sure are some big cleats to fill on defense. Minnesota parted was with its top three tacklers, the top two sack producers and the top two interception leaders, including Antoine Winfield Jr., the Big Ten’s defensive back of the year who had seven picks. The offense should be good again, and if the defense can figure things out, Minnesota can again be a factor in the conference.

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Minnesota wasn’t ranked in our preseason poll last year.

 

About the Golden Gophers

2019: 11-2,7-2 in the Big Ten; beat Auburn 31-24 in the Outback Bowl

Coach: P.J. Fleck (53-37, 23-15 in three years at Minnesota)

Returning starters: 8 offense, 5 defense

Shoes to fill: OC Kirk Ciarrocca (now at Penn State); RB Rodney Smith (last year’s leading rusher); S Antoine Winfield Jr. (2nd round, Buccaneers); WR Tyler Johnson (last year’s leading receiver, 5th round, Buccaneers); LB Kamal Martin (5th round, Packers); OLB/DL Carter Coughlin (7th round, Giants, 2nd-team all-conference)

 

Catching up

There were two important offseason developments on the coaching front — offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca jumped ship for Big Ten rival Penn State, and head coach P.J. Fleck, coming off a big season, was awarded a contract extension that locks him in through the 2026 season. The new OC, Mike Sanford Jr., was a Boise State quarterback in the early 2000s who went 9-16 as the head coach at Western Kentucky before serving as Utah State’s OC and quarterbacks coach in 2019, where he developed Jordan Love into a first-round draft pick. … WR Rashod Bateman has been named to a second-team Walter Camp Preseason All-American. … Five players went in April’s NFL draft, but four of those rookies will at least already have a friend on the team; safety Antoine Winfield Jr. and receiver Tyler Johnson both were taken by the Buccaneers, and linebacker Carter Coughlin and cornerback Chris Williamson both went to the Giants in the seventh. … Recruiting has been going well — the Gophers’ 2021 class ranks 18th — but they did lose a commitment from four-star quarterback Sam Jackson not once, but twice; he originally committed to Minnesota in February 2019, then decommitted last fall, then pledged to Minnesota again in April, then backed out again this summer. He’s now pledged to Big Ten foe Purdue. … Former Gophers coach Jerry Kill, now a special assistant at TCU, contracted the coronavirus, but the 58-year-old has since recovered.

 

Tanner Morgan became the first quarterback in Gophers history to pass for 3,000 yards and 30 touchdowns in a single season last year. Now he will be working with a new offensive coordinator, but one who turned Utah State’s Jordan Love into the Green Bay Packers’ first-round draft pick in April. (Douglas DeFelice/USA Today)

Returning leaders

Passing: Tanner Morgan (led team), 210-318-3,253 yards, 30 TDs, 7 INTs

Rushing: Mohamed Ibrahim (2nd), 114-604-7

Receiving: Rashod Bateman (2nd), 60-1,219-11; Chris Autman-Bell (3rd), 28-371-5

Tackles: DB Jordan Howden (T-4th), 57

Sacks: LB Braelen Oliver (T-3rd), 3; DL Boye Mafe (T-3rd), 3

Interceptions: DB Coney Durr (T-3rd), 1; DB Phillip Howard (T-3rd), 1

 

Returning all-conference

Offense: WR Rashod Bateman (1st team, Big Ten receiver of the year); QB Tanner Morgan (2nd); OL Blaise Andries (hon. mention); OL Curtis Dunlap Jr. (hon. mention); OL Daniel Faalele (hon. mention); OL Conner Olson (hon. mention); OL Sam Schlueter (hon. mention)

Defense: DB Coney Durr (hon. mention); DB Benjamin St. Juste (hon. mention)

 

FYI

A new offense: Tanner Morgan became the first Gophers quarterback to ever pass for 3,000 yards and 30 touchdowns in the same season. But with the departure of record-setting running back Rodney Smith and record-setting receiver Tyler Johnson, he’s gone from a 2019 triplet to a 2020 only child. Well, almost. The reigning Big Ten receiver of the year (Rashod Bateman) is back, and that’s good news because the Gophers must work with a new offensive coordinator; out goes Kirk Ciarrocca, who’s now at Penn State, and in comes former Notre Dame OC and Western Kentucky head coach Mike Sanford Jr.

Pacing the run: Just because Smith — Minnesota’s career all-purpose yardage leader — is now a Carolina Panther, it doesn’t mean the Gophers’ running game is in trouble. Mohamed Ibrahim has done it before. When Smith went down with an injury in 2018, Ibrahim rushed for more than 1,100 yards and nine touchdowns, and he had a 140-yard game with a touchdown in the Outback Bowl win over Auburn. And the entire offensive line is back this season.

A tale of two lines: The offensive and defensive lines are in exact opposite situations. The O-line is deep and talented, as all five starters are back, including LT Sam Schleuter, a fifth-year senior who was the team’s anchor up front. Connor Olson has started 38 games and is solid at center. And the right side could be special, too. But the defensive line is in rebuilding mode. All four starters must be replaced.

 

2019 national stat rankings

Where Minnesota ranked nationally in various statistical categories last season — and how the Golden Gophers ranked in 2018.

Scoring: 21st (2018 — 64th)

Scoring defense: T-37th (59th)

Total offense: 42nd (86th)

Total defense: 10th (54th)

Passing: 47th (89th)

Pass defense: 9th (51st)

Rushing: 46th (64th)

Rush defense: 23rd (78th)

Red zone offense: T-24th (88th)

Red zone defense: 123rd (97th)

Turnover margin: 40th (88th)

Time of possession: 4th (26th)

 

Our Top 25 — so far

No. 25: Boise State figures to keep its perch atop the Mountain West

No. 24: Might this pandemic lead to not one, but two Iowa State-Iowa games?Inside the Cyclones

No. 23: Will Kirk Ferentz emerge from Iowa’s summer of discontent unscathed? / Inside the Hawkeyes

No. 22: Cincinnati’s picking up recruiting in 2020 where it left off in 2019 / Inside the Bearcats

No. 21: Former Gamecocks quarterback hopes to take over at Utah / Inside the Utes

No. 20: Central Florida, Darrell Wyatt are reloading with receivers / Inside the Knights

No. 19: Minnesota Golden Gophers

 

Coming tomorrow

Our No. 18 team. Want a hint?

This school’s head coach is a former coordinator at Oklahoma and has won a national championship.

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