7:30 PM EST, ABC – Line: Michigan -3, Over/Under: 54
The Big Ten continues it’s grand return to action this weekend, as the No. 21 Minnesota Golden Gophers look to maintain their momentum from a stellar 2019 as they play host to the No. 18 Michigan Wolverines in a primetime battle from TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota. This figures to be the most unconventional of seasons, as the Big Ten looks to complete their 2020 campaign with a breakneck, eight-game schedule consisting of no off-weeks, with a ninth reserved for it’s Conference Championship, which will coincidentally be contested a day before the participants of the College Football Playoff are to be announced. With that said, you know it’s an unconventional season in which Michigan (9-4, 6-3 in Big Ten in 2019) is the unknown commodity rather than the team that they’re competing against, but that’s precisely the case for we really don’t know what to expect from the Wolverines this season. Now in his sixth season at his alma mata, Jim Harbaugh is still looking for that breakthrough campaign, which is really saying something given that he’s managed to produce a solid 47-18 (.723) ledger since returning to Ann Arbor back in 2015. During that period of time, he’s won no fewer than eight games in a single season, including a trifecta of ten-win finishes, but the issue here is that he has hardly met the highest of expectations. Simply put, when he was hired he was expected to win the Big Ten. He hasn’t even appeared in the Conference Title Game. He was expected to challenge bitter rival, Ohio State. He’s lost all five of his annual meetings with the Buckeyes. He was expected to position the Maize & Blue into the Playoff. That’s been a dream that has only appeared farther away with each passing season.
Fortunately for Harbaugh, 2020 doesn’t appear to carry as heavy expectations as usual, for this doesn’t look like the most talented of groups that he’s had over the past six years, with the Offense looking very questionable though the Defense figures to be solid. In regards to the latter, there are six starters returning from a unit that allowed 20.7 points per game (25th Overall) on a stellar 308.2 total yards, including 185.5 yards against the pass and another 122.7 yards versus the run, racking up twenty takeaways. Edge-Rushers, Aidan Hutchinson (69 TKL, 10. TFL, 3.5 SK, 3 FF, 6 PD in 2019) and Kwity Paye (50 TKL, 12.5 TFL, 6.5 SK in 2019), combined for 22.5 tackles for loss, ten sacks, and three forced fumbles last year, and will be backed up by Sophomore Linebacker, Cameron McGrone (65 TKL, 9.0 TFL, 2.5 SK, 1 FF, 1 PD in 2019), who is the only member of the Corps returning in 2020. In the Secondary, Brad Hawkins (53 TKL, 1 PD in 2019) brings Senior leadership at Safety, with a pair of blue-chip Sophomores flanking him in the form of fellow Safety, Daxton Hill (36 TKL, 3.0 TFL, 2 FR, 1 INT, 3 PD in 2019), and Cornerback, Vincent Gray (20 TKL, 1.5 TFL, 5 PD in 2019), who really held his own in coverage despite being thrown into the fire as a Freshman last season. However, for Harbaugh to have any significant chance at meeting any of those aforementioned expectations, he’s going to need to see MAJOR growth on the opposite side of the football, where the Offense figures to be a work in progress. Expect the rushing attack to remain the focus, with Tailbacks Zach Charbonnet (149 CAR, 726 YDS, 4.9 Y/A, 11 TD in 2019) and Hassan Haskins (121 CAR, 622 YDS, 5.1 Y/A, 4 TD in 2019), bulldozing through the trenches behind an Offensive Line that will be aided by the return of Right Tackle, Jalen Mayfield, who opted out of 2020 due to concerns over COVID-19, only to opt back in following the league’s announcement to return to play. The Wolverines averaged 151.2 rushing yards per game last year on a solid 4.0 yards per carry, but it wasn’t until the second half of the term in which it truly got going; Offensive Coordinator, Josh Gattis, seemed to to trust the tandem of Charbonnet and Haskins far more at that point, with the run game churning out 193.2 yards from Weeks 4 to 9. However, they closed the Big Ten schedule with a whimper, mustering a scant 88.0 yards over the final three games, averaging 3.5 or fewer on each occasion. With that said, the passing game remains the focus of critics, and by far and away the biggest concern coming into 2020.
One of the biggest criticisms of Harbaugh, a former Quarterback himself, is that he has yet to land and develop a top-tier Quarterback since returning to Michigan. Remember, this is the same guy who landed and cultivated the immense talent that was Andrew Luck back in his days at Stanford. With Shea Patterson graduating and Dylan McCaffrey leaving via the Transfer Portal, the expected signal-caller for the Wolverines is Joe Milton (42.9%, 59 YDS, 8.4 Y/A, 1 TD, 1 INT, 132.2 RATE in 2019), a 6-5, 243 lb Junior who has thrown eleven passes over the past two seasons. Though the Coaching Staff has raved about his talent, consistency has been the key word when discussing Milton, who has managed to be both erratic and exciting in his two seasons on campus. A 2018 four-star recruit who will become the first starter that Harbaugh has had that he actually recruited out of high school, Milton has a versatility that many of of his predecessors in Ann Arbor lacked, with a strong arm and nimble feet to make plays in a multitude of ways. His supporting cast will be essential to his growth, with Tight End, Nick Eubanks (25 REC, 243 YDS, 9.7 Y/R, 4 TD in 2019), and Receiver, Ronnie Bell (48 REC, 758 YDS, 15.8 Y/R, 1 TD in 2019), looking to play a bigger role within the Offense. Fellow Wideouts, Giles Jackson (19 TCH, 211 YDS, 11.1 Y/T, 2 TD in 2019) and Mike Sainristil (8 REC, 145 YDS, 18.1 Y/R, 1 TD in 2019) bring plenty of speed to the table, but will be counted upon to make major transitions as well, with the former being asked to move from the return game to the passing game, and the latter adding more to his ledger than simply working out of the slot.
Meanwhile, in terms of disrupting momentum from one season to the next, Minnesota (11-2, 7-2 in Big Ten in 2019) will be lamenting the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic more than most, for 2019 was nothing short of a magical campaign for a program that hadn’t enjoyed such success in well over a century. That’s right, folks, the Golden Gophers won eleven games for the first time since 1904, resulting in their first Top-10 finish in the AP Poll since 1962. The man that they have to thank for that is none other than P.J. Fleck, who has transformed the program into a contender with the Big Ten, which is a distinction that they haven’t really enjoyed since joining the conference way back in 1953. Seriously, this is a school that had managed to win eight or more games on just nine occasions during that period, with three of them coming back in the 1960s. However, this really shouldn’t come as any surprise to anyone who has charted Fleck’s meteoric ascension up the college football coaching ranks, with the 39-year old perhaps setting himself up for a major job down the road. Back in 2013, he arrived at Western Michigan and in four years transformed a 1-11 doormat into a 13-1 MAC Champion that finished the season ranked No. 15 in the AP Poll. That success earned him the nod in Minneapolis, where in only three years he managed to take his charges from 5-7 to 11-2 in an even shorter period of time, earning cult hero status in the state of Minnesota due to his ability to create an atmosphere that has been infectious. Sure, the whole rowing the boat mantra is a bit corny, but it has worked with aplomb, with the Gophers gunning for a second consecutive appearance in the Big Ten Championship Game.
2019 started off slowly for Minnesota, who barely scraped by their first four opponents of the campaign, besting the likes of South Dakota State (28-21), Fresno State (38-35), Georgia Southern (35-32), and Purdue (38-31) by a combined twenty points. However, something happened during the month of October in which they began to grow exponentially on both sides of the football, averaging 39.8 points per game on 467.6 total yards and relegating the opposition to a mere 13.6 points and forcing a total of nine takeaways during that span. The crowning achievement was defeating (5) Penn State 31-26, which served as a statement of legitimacy to the rest of the league, running their perfect start to 9-0. With that said, losses to Iowa (19-23) and Wisconsin (17-38) would cool their momentum a bit, but Fleck’s charges nonetheless finished strong, besting (9) Auburn 31-24 in the Outback Bowl. The 2019 Big Ten Coach of the Year has proven his ability in building a program, but now the challenge for will be in sustaining success which goes hand-in-hand with replacing the players that he’s lost, with a large number of contributors having moved on from the defensive side of the football. The Gophers said goodbye to six starters from last year’s Defense, including their top two pass-rushers, Sam Renner (43 TKL, 8.5 TFL, 5.0 SK, 4 PD in 2019) and Carter Coughlin (49 TKL, 9.5 TFL, 4.5 SK, 3 FF, 4 PD in 2019), along with ball-hawking Safeties, Antoine Winfield Jr. (85 TKL, 3.5 TFL, 3.0 SK, 2 FF, 7 INT, 1 PD, 1 TD in 2019) and Chris Williamson (56 TKL, 4.0 TFL, 2.5 SK, 1 INT, 3 PD, 1 TD in 2019), with Winfield in particular a significant loss; selected forty-fifth in the 2020 NFL Draft following a sterling campaign in which the Senior totaled seven interceptions and three sacks. The Offense took some hits too, with the Big Ten’s most prolific Receiver, Tyler Johnson (86 REC, 1,318 YDS, 15.3 Y/R, 13 TD in 2019), moving on to Sundays as well. The 161st Overall Pick in the NFL Draft, Johnson hauled in 3,305 yards and thirty-three touchdowns on 213 receptions throughout his career in Minneapolis , including eighty-six catches, 1,318 yards, and thirteen touchdowns last season, all of which led the league. Furthermore, Fleck also lost his Offensive Coordinator, Kirk Ciarrocca, who migrated to Penn State in the Spring on the strength of a unit that averaged 34.1 points per game (22nd Overall in 2019) on 432.0 total yards, including 253.3 yards through the air.
With that said, let’s focus on what Minnesota has coming back in 2020, shall we? Even without Johnson, Fleck will have plenty to work with on Offense, including his Starting Quarterback, Tanner Morgan (66.0%, 3,253 YDS, 10.2 Y/A, 30 TD, 7 INT, 178.7 RATE in 2019), All-Big Ten Receiver, Rashod Bateman (60 REC, 1,219 YDS, 20.3 Y/R, 11 TD in 2019), and all five of arguably the largest Offensive Line in the country, let alone the Big Ten. Morgan flourished as a Sophomore within a relatively straightforward Offense predicated on inside and outside zone runs, with the signal-caller making proper use of a host of RPOs, which is something that he really excelled at. Needless to say, the kid’s decision-making skills are top notch, and his comfortability within Fleck’s system is only going to continue to grow, particularly now that it will be once again aided by the presence of Bateman, who nearly passed on the 2020 campaign altogether, initially choosing to opt out due to concerns over COVID-19. However, once the Big Ten announced it’s plans to return to play, the Junior applied for reinstatement in short order, which should be music to the ears of his Quarterback, who enjoyed 20.3 yards per completion when throwing his way. If fellow Wideout, Chris Autman-Bell (28 REC, 371 YDS, 13.3 Y/R, 5 TD in 2019) can continue to grow, and Tailbacks Mohamed Ibrahim (114 CAR, 604 YDS, 5.3 Y/A, 7 TD in 2019) and Bryce Williams (17 CAR, 24 YDS, 1.4 Y/A, 1 TD in 2019), can exploit the chasms created by those behemoths in the trenches, this Offense should continue to be one of the most explosive in the conference. Defensively, losing both Safeties is tough, but the Gophers return their top three Cornerbacks from last year’s group, including Jordan Howden (57 TKL, 0.5 TFL, 1 INT, 6 PD in 2019), Benjamin St-Juste (45 TKL, 1.5 TFL, 10 PD in 2019), and Coney Durr (33 TKL, 1.0 TFL, 1 INT, 10 PD 1 TD in 2019), with big things expected from Edge-Rusher, Boye Mafe (14 TKL, 4.5 TFL, 3.0 SK in 2019), and Linebacker, Braelen Oliver (22 TKL, 3.5 TFL, 3.0 SK, 1 FR, 1 PD in 2019), now that they’re healthy.