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P.J. Fleck’s first Minnesota team is a Big Ten West wildcard. This will be fun.

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The fired-up coach’s Gophers could contend right away.

Toledo v Western Michigan Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

Sometimes the projections are dead on. My early-2016 projections had Minnesota finishing 8-4 with a No. 42 S&P+ ranking, and the Gophers went 9-4 with a No. 42 S&P+ ranking. First-year head coach Tracy Claeys hit the mark set for previous head coach Jerry Kill, and his 2016 signing class was a little better than what Kill tended to sign.

It’s hard to hope for more than that out of the gates, isn’t it? Claeys was seen as an uninspired hire, but as I wrote in last year’s Minnesota preview, a lack of creativity doesn’t automatically correlate to a lack of quality.

If the Gophers have their house in order from the beginning of the season, and if they're decent at closing out games, an 8-1 start is on the table.

Per S&P+, they have a below-50 percent chance of winning in only one game in the first nine, and while there are a few tossups (and you can't expect to win all of those), if they handle their business in September, October could have magnitude. And if Claeys is able to stick a nine-win total on the board, then I'm curious where his recruiting goes from there.

Done and done.

But.

Claeys was fired in January. An alleged sexual assault took place early in the season, and by the time a Title IX investigation was completed in December, 10 players had been suspended. Frustrated by a lack of communication from the university, players announced a boycott in the run-up to their bowl against Washington State. Claeys announced unequivocal support for his players after warning them that a boycott would come across as “pro-sexual assault, which we’re not,” acknowledging the stance might get him fired.

The boycott ended, and Minnesota knocked off Wazzu, but on January 3, Claeys was indeed fired.

And needing to stick the landing in the wake of a threatened “countless transfers,” the school did. From 2014-16, Minnesota’s recruiting classes averaged a ranking of 55.3, per the 247Sports Composite. Fleck’s Western Michigan averaged 71st, basically only a couple of three-star recruits behind, despite residence in the MAC.

Fleck inherited a team that had gone 4-8 and ranked 109th in S&P+ in Bill Cubit’s last year, and he underwent a full-fledged youth movement. WMU went 1-11 with a No. 117 ranking in 2013, but 8-5 with rankings in the 50s in each of the next two years. As Fleck’s recruits became upperclassmen, the Broncos surged to 13-1 with a No. 35 ranking in 2016.

Fleck has a schtick. He might be the most outwardly energetic coach in football. It’s not for everybody, and depending on whom you talk to, it might have prevented him from a more marquee job. But in recruiting, motivation, tactics, and buy-in, he proved about as much as he possibly could’ve in Kalamazoo. The results were there. And while the Minnesota roster thinned, “countless transfers” did not occur.

The BIg Ten West race has an interesting shape this offseason. There’s a clear leader, two clear bottom teams, and who-the-hell-knows in between. Take Athlon, for instance: its preview ranks Wisconsin 10th, Purdue and Illinois deep into the 80s, and the four other teams between 41st and 54th.

My own projections are similar: Wisconsin 11th, Illinois 85th, Purdue 87th, and the other four between 37th and 48th. Three clear tiers. Northwestern’s experience could make the Wildcats a top-30 team, Nebraska has more upside than its rivals but is replacing two-thirds of last year’s offense, and Fleck’s culture change makes Minnesota a high-variability team within that cluster.

In recent years, Minnesota and WMU were increasingly similar in quality, but their positive traits were reversed. WMU ranked in the Off. S&P+ in each of the last two years but was dragged down by its defense; Minnesota hasn’t cracked the Off. S&P+ top 50 since 2007 but ranked in the Def. S&P+ top 25 in each of the last two years.

Fleck acknowledged the disparity by bringing offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca from Kalamazoo, but attempting a defensive upgrade; former Rutgers and Arkansas coordinator Robb Smith takes over on that side.

Fleck was a dynamic recruiter at WMU, and while that hasn’t immediately translated in Minneapolis — his 2018 class currently ranks 23rd per 247, but that’s mainly because he’s already gotten 19 commits; the per-recruit average is barely ahead of last year’s pace — odds are good there will be an uptick. He won’t have to strip this house to its studs. If this transfusion of energy translates, Minnesota could become the No. 1 contender to Wisconsin’s crown.

Or we might find out that only Fleck’s recruits truly respond to Fleck’s coaching, and the house gets stripped down. That option is still on the table.


2016 in review

2016 Minnesota statistical profile.

My postgame win expectancy measure (found on teams’ statistical profiles) takes the key stats from each game and announces, “With these stats, you could have expected to win this game X percent of the time.”

And per win expectancy, the Gophers’ 2016 had no surprising results. In only one of their four losses did they have a postgame win expectancy higher than 15 percent. In only one of their nine wins did they have an expectancy lower than 80 percent.

Sounds like a bunch of blowouts! But on the field, as opposed to on paper, Minnesota was rarely separated much from its opponent. The Gophers won four games by a touchdown or less and lost three. They were close to dramatic over- and underachievement and instead just ... achieved. Even the best loss (29-26 to Penn State, with 15 percent win expectancy) and worst win (34-32 over Rutgers with 80 percent win expectancy) seemed cut-and-dried on paper.

The results were similar for Fleck’s WMU: only one win with a less than 79 percent win expectancy, and the lone loss (24-16 to Wisconsin) producing a 30 percent win expectancy.

Odds are decent that a second head coaching change in two years could make the team a little bit more vulnerable to volatility.


Offense

Minnesota offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

Ciarrocca should like what he has inherited at Minnesota. His WMU offense was pretty straight-forward: run the ball on standard downs (67 percent of the time, 24th in the country), play it safe on rare passing downs (35 percent PD run rate, 45th), force teams to gang tackle, and operate with decent tempo. A lot of Fleck’s best recruits at WMU were running backs, and Ciarrocca used them. Granted, he also deployed star Corey Davis effectively in play-action, but the run was the heart of the attack.

It was the same for Minnesota, only with a slower tempo and even more passing-downs rushes. The Gophers wanted to grind away and set a table for their defense, but with two sophomore running backs, one reliable receiver, and a line so banged up and shuffled around that not a single player started all 13 games, that wasn’t always possible.

Inconsistent personnel meant inconsistent production: Minnesota scored 29 or more points eight times but scored 17 or fewer on four occasions. And after an October surge (37 points per game against Maryland, Rutgers, Illinois, and Purdue), the well dried up (20 points per game over the last four games).

National Funding Holiday Bowl - Minnesota v Washington State
Rodney Smith
Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

The combination of stability and experience could be helpful. Those sophomore backs are now juniors, and both Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks had their moments last year; during that 37 PPG run, Smith averaged 6 yards per carry and 127 yards per game, while Brooks averaged 6.9 against Colorado State and Penn State.

Of the eight linemen who started at least one game last year, only four return, but let’s just say Minnesota won’t lack for girth. Not only are all four of those players now upperclassmen (two juniors, two seniors), but they also average 6’5, 325 pounds. And they’re now led by Ed Warinner, Ohio State’s former line coach and one of the best in the business.

That Ohio State’s line grew a little glitchier when Warinner took on coordinator duties in Columbus probably isn’t a coincidence, but in theory he can focus on his biggest strength. And Minnesota’s run game could get awfully mean, awfully quickly.

Nebraska Cornhuskers v Minnesota
Brandon Lingen
Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Of course, that will only matter so much if the Gophers can’t throw. And the passing game is a total mystery. Longtime starter Mitch Leidner is gone; senior-to-be Conor Rhoda went 7-for-15 while filling in for an injured Leidner against Maryland last year ... and that’s basically the extent of Minnesota’s QB experience.

If Rhoda isn’t the starter this fall, it will probably be mid-three-star sophomore Demry Croft, who maybe eked ahead this spring. The main job will be to stick the ball into Smith’s and Brooks’ bellies and hope that the run works well enough that they can throw over the top to Rashad Still. Still is a 6’5 target who caught 19 of 39 balls last year but averaged 18.3 yards per catch.

The loss of steady Drew Wolitarsky will hurt; he was one of the most-targeted No. 1 receivers in the country — he had 102 targets, 63 more than No. 2 target Still, and he was the only guy with a success rate over 50 percent. There will be a lot of pressure on someone like sophomore Tyler Johnson to provide a possession threat.

The return of tight end Brandon Lingen will help in this regard, at least. He caught 33 balls in 2015 but missed the last 10 games of 2016 with injury.

Defense

Minnesota defensive radar

Smith’s track record at Arkansas was a bit confusing. His first Hog defense surged from 78th to seventh in Def. S&P+ in 2014. Arkansas was all sorts of disruptive up front, but once those pieces departed, he couldn’t find the same rhythm. His last two defenses ranked 65th and 64th, nearly equal to WMU’s No. 69 ranking in 2016.

If he requires disruption up front to succeed, though, he should find things to like about Minnesota. Tackle Steven Richardson is one of the most active interior guys in the conference; he recorded 11 tackles for loss and seven sacks last year, and opponents distracted by Richardson and Andrew Stelter allowed linebackers Jonathan Celestin and Blake Cashman (combined: 17.5 TFLs, 10 sacks, four breakups, three forced fumbles) to make plays as well.

Granted, in terms of known quantities, it gets thin up front after these four; the next leading tackler on the line (sophomore end Winston DeLattiboudere) made just 10.5 tackles last year.

Still, having four upperclassman play-makers is a good place to start. And for what it’s worth, both DeLattiboudere and Tai'yon Devers, another sophomore end, flashed major play-making potential in minimal time — they had just 15 tackles in 2016, but 6.5 of them came behind the line. And a third sophomore, former blue-chip linebacker Carter Coughlin, moved to rush end this spring as well. The potential is massive.

Rutgers v Minnesota
Steven Richardson
Photo by Adam Bettcher/Getty Images

Depth on the line will remain a concern until proven otherwise, but there could be even bigger issues in the back. Due to injury and suspensions, Minnesota had to do a lot of shuffling in the secondary — only two regulars played in all 13 games — and the fact that the Gophers finished 24th in Passing S&P+ was an accomplishment.

The return of safeties Antoine Winfield Jr. and Duke McGhee gives the Gophers steadiness despite the loss of Damarius Travis, but if either gets hurt, Minnesota could find itself relying on freshmen. Though corners Antonio Shenault, Adekunle Ayinde, and Coney Durr saw decent playing time, the best play-makers at CB (Jalen Myrick and KiAnte Hardin, who combined for 18 passes defensed) are gone. Redshirt freshman Kiondre Thomas had a nice spring and could be counted on sooner than later. Like, in Week 1.

Depth issues are a funny thing — you never know in advance if they’re going to bite you. If some sophomore ends and a couple of young defensive backs come through, Minnesota’s starting 11 could have all the activity up front and steadiness in the back that Smith requires. But the Gophers could also be a couple of poorly placed injuries away from a build toward 2018.

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Illinois
Antoine Winfield Jr.
Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

The Minnesota offense was inefficient, and the defense was thin enough to have its shaky moments. But the Gophers could count on special teams. They ranked sixth in Special Teams S&P+, powered by brilliant place-kicking from Emmit Carpenter (10-for-10 on field goals longer than 40 yards), tremendous returns from Jalen Myrick and KiAnte Hardin, and solid coverage units.

Carpenter’s return alone will likely keep this unit pretty high in the rankings. He’s brilliant, and punter Ryan Santoso isn’t too bad in his own right. But Minnesota will be starting over in the returns department, which could be worth at least a small slide in the rankings.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
31-Aug Buffalo 128 27.0 94%
9-Sep at Oregon State 54 -1.8 46%
16-Sep Middle Tennessee 89 13.7 79%
30-Sep Maryland 72 8.3 68%
7-Oct at Purdue 87 8.5 69%
14-Oct Michigan State 44 1.8 54%
21-Oct Illinois 85 12.8 77%
28-Oct at Iowa 48 -2.5 44%
4-Nov at Michigan 10 -18.0 15%
11-Nov Nebraska 42 1.3 53%
18-Nov at Northwestern 37 -4.7 39%
25-Nov Wisconsin 11 -11.7 25%
Projected S&P+ Rk 47
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 89 / 21
Projected wins 6.6
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 4.0 (49)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 52 / 55
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 8 / 7.2
2016 TO Luck/Game +0.3
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 57% (45%, 68%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 8.7 (0.3)

Even though Claeys did a good job in his lone season, Minnesota did well in bringing Fleck to town, and I’m doubting he’ll end up in a Year Zero situation the way he did at WMU.

But this could end up a significant change in culture, and it’s hard to know how that will play out. Either it provides a bolt of energy, or it leads to a rebuilding year or two.

Of the Big Ten West’s middle four teams, Minnesota’s ceiling might be higher than anybody’s outside of Nebraska, but its floor for 2017 is probably the lowest, too. And a fascinating schedule features five games with S&P+ win probabilities between 39 and 54 percent each. There are few guaranteed wins and few guaranteed losses. A small number of injuries could make the difference between West contention and a 4-8 record.

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