#62 Minnesota Football 2017 Preview

Minnesota Golden Gophers
Overall Rank: #62
#9 Big Ten
Minnesota overcame a very tumultuous offseason very quickly after the dismissal of former head coach Tracy Claeys as the Golden Gophers hired P.J. Fleck from Western Michigan. Fleck brings endless amounts of energy and slogans like “Row the Boat,” to the land of 10,000 lakes this fall and will be expected to ignite some energy into this program right away.
2016 Record: 9-4, 5-4
2016 Bowl: Holiday Bowl vs. Washington State, 17-12 W
Coach: P.J. Fleck (0-0 at Minnesota, 30-22 overall)
Offensive Coordinator: Kirk Ciarrocca
Defensive Coordinator: Robb Smith
Returning Leaders:
Rushing: Rodney Smith, RB, 1,158 yards
Passing: Conor Rhoda, QB, 88 yards
Receiving: Rodney Smith, RB, 188 yards
Tackles: Jonathan Celestin, LB, 80
Sacks: Blake Cashman, LB, 7.5
Interceptions: 4 players tied with 1
Other Key Returnees: WR Rashad Still, LT Donnell Greene, LG Vincent Calhoun, RG Jared Weyler, RT Garrison Wright, TE Nate Wozniak, DT Steven Richardson, SS Antoine Winfield Jr., FS Duke McGhee, K Emmitt Carpenter, P Ryan Santoso, RB Shannon Brooks, LB Cody Poock
Key Losses:  QB Mitch Leidner, WR Drew Wolitarsky, C Tyler Moore, RT Jonah Pirsig, DB Damarius Travis, DB Jalen Myrick
Running the football was not a problem last season for the Golden Gophers as they got plenty of production out of Rodney Smith at running back. Smith ran for 1,158 yards and 16 touchdowns and is the best offensive player returning in 2017. The next step for this offense will be to develop a competent passing game as Minnesota only threw five touchdown passes against FBS teams last season. Conor Rhoda will take the reins at quarterback for Mitch Leidner, who graduated last season. Rhoda has only thrown 17 passes in his career and he will be pushed competition wise sophomore Denny Croft. Rashad Still will be expected to take a giant step forward after catching only 18 passes last season. The offensive line brings back a good mix of experience with Donnell Greene at left tackle expected to anchor this unit. One of the biggest strengths of the offense line is run blocking along with protecting the quarterback as they only allowed 1.31 sacks per game last season.
This is going to be an interesting group to watch as the defense doesn’t bring back a ton of experience. Steven Richardson is a very stout defensive tackle that should compete for all Big Ten honors this season. Richardson should also free up the linebackers to roam free and make big plays all year long. Richardson had 11 tackles for loss last season so opposing teams will be keying in on him. Jonathan Celestin is the leading returning tackler from last season with 80 and will is joined by Blake Cashman and Cody Poock at linebacker. Cashman did a great job of getting to the quarterback in 2016, recording 7.5 sacks. Antoine Winfield Jr. is going to lead a secondary that will be young but will have time to come together as the schedule in September is manageable.
The Bottom Line:
In an era of the unbalanced schedule in conference play it is important for teams like Minnesota to hold serve against teams they should beat. For example, last season they played Rutgers at home and this year that game is replaced by a trip to Ann Arbor to play Michigan. If all goes well in the early portion of the season the Golden Gophers should be 5-0 heading into a key game against a resurgent Michigan State team in Minneapolis. A win against the Spartans could seal up bowl eligibility and allow Minnesota to be able to attack the tough part of the schedule with a bowl berth in their back pocket. Overall, look for the Golden Gophers to take a slight step backward in the win column, but put together a better on-field product as the season goes along.
Projected Bowl: Foster Farms Bowl
2016 Team Stats:
Rushing Offense: 183.6 (54th in nation, 5th in conference)
Passing Offense: 173.6 (111, 12)
Total Offense: 357.2 (107, 11)
Scoring Offense: 29.3 (63, 4)
Rushing Defense: 117.8 (14, 2)
Pass Defense: 230.9 (73, 13)
Total Defense: 348.8 (21, 4)
Scoring Defense: 22.1 (21, 5)
Turnover Margin: 0.62 (18,4)
Sacks: 2.85 (22, 4)
Sacks Allowed: 1.31 (19, 2)


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