10 November 2019

A bold prediction about Big Ten football - updated with video


Posted for family and a few friends with an interest in collegiate football.
Other readers can just scroll past to more interesting stuff.
Tomorrow the Big Ten football season starts with the first preseason games.  The pundits and national analysts have published their predictions; the list embedded at the top is from USA Today.   Of the Big Ten teams, Ohio State (predicted 5th), Michigan (7th), Penn State (14th), Wisconsin (17th), Iowa (19th), Michigan State (20th), and Northwestern (25th) are all expected to be in the top 25 nationally.  Minnesota received 1 measly point, out of 21,000 awarded by 65 headcoaches around the country.  Reporters covering the Big Ten are similarly dismissive; they collectively predicted Minnesota to finish sixth in the 7-team West division.

TYWKIWDBI hereby predicts Minnesota to finish in the top 25 nationally and second in their division.  You heard it here first.

Last Year
The Gophers closed out the 2017 season two years ago with two losses by a combined score of 70-0, and in the past two years under their new coach P.J. Fleck their record against Big Ten teams has been 5-13.  The problem last year was that the team lost both of their premier running backs to injuries in September, and they lost Antoine Winfield, their star defensive safety after just four games.  So they struggled; after a change in the assistant coaching staff, the defense went from giving up 500 yards/game to 300 and from 43 pts/game to 15, and the team's offense compensated and managed to finish the year by beating ranked Wisconsin at Wisconsin and then blowing away Georgia Tech in a bowl game.

Personnel
Last year they fielded a team that was the youngest in U.S. collegiate football; at times the entire backfield was composed of freshmen right out of high school.  This year the team returns 78% of its offensive production.   Their injured star running backs (Rodney Smith, Shannon Brooks) are back for their senior seasons, as is last year's star sophomore Mo Ibrahim; the three have combined for 6,000 rushing yards.

The only major players lost to graduation were the placekicker and center, two defensive tackles, and the best linebacker.  The team has 17 returning starters: the Gophers return an amazing 100% of passing yards, 99% of rushing yards, and 99% of receiving yards. None of the Big Ten teams they play can say as much; most of the opposing teams in the division lost key players from last year to graduation or transfer. 

The offensive line has four returning starters, and pound-for-pound is bigger than the Minnesota Vikings’ offensive line. The four average 6-foot-6 and 340 pounds (the Vikings’ line averages 6-foot-4, 302)  Sophomore Daniel Faalele is 6-foot-9 and 400#. The wide receivers include all-Big-Ten senior Tyler Johnson, who could have turned pro last year but elected to stay with the team.

Schedule
The Gophers have one difficult preseason game in week two, against Fresno State, which went 12-2 last year, beat Boise State for the Mountain West championship, and then beat Arizona State in a bowl game.  The game is at Fresno State in the second of a home-and-home pairing.  But.. of those two losses last year, one was to Minnesota in the preseason, and Fresno State lost to graduation their star quarterback, and will play this year with an inexperienced one.

A little-known fact:  the Gophers have won 15 straight nonconference games.  That is the longest streak in the nation, dating back to when they lost to #2 TCU in 2015.  I expect the Gophers to repeat as winners against Fresno State and thus enter the conference schedule 3-0 after wins against South Dakota State and Georgia Southern..

When the conference schedule starts in late September, the first five games will be winnable (at Purdue, home against Illinois and Nebraska, at Rutgers, and then Maryland at home).  By then they could be 8-0 and ready to roll against the big boys, because the season ends against presumably ranked teams: home against Penn State, away to play Iowa and Northwestern, and then the season-ending traditional game against Wisconsin (at home).

This year the Gophers are not scheduled to play Ohio State, Michigan, or Michigan State.   The West division's toughest schedule may go to Wisconsin, which must face Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State. And Iowa will play against Michigan and Penn State.

Prediction
I predict the Gophers to finish 6-3 in the West division, behind only Iowa, and thus 9-3 overall and ranked in the top-25 nationally. The one thing that could derail my prediction would be unexpected injuries to key players.  Already in the preseason one of the team's two experienced quarterbacks has been declared out for the season with a foot injury.

Update Oct 1:
After five weeks of the season (4 games and a bye), the Gophers are 4-0, with the three nonconference wins and a Big Ten opening win at Purdue (in that game Gopher QB Tanner Morgan was 21 for 22 (!!) for 396 yards and four touchdowns).  In the national poll, the "others receiving votes" now looks like this:
California 125; Southern Methodist 118; Arizona State 96; Army 47; Minnesota 34; Baylor 34; Appalachian State 28; Colorado 18; Duke 17; Tulane 16; Utah State 15; Kansas State 13; Hawaii 10; Southern California 9; Texas Christian 6; Washington State 3; Mississippi State 3; Air Force 3; Wyoming 2.
Effectively tied for 30th.  Home games vs. Illinois and Nebraska coming next.

Update Oct 8:
One week after a record-setting passing performance, the Gophers coped with cool drizzly weather this past weekend by reverting to a dominating ground game, with one back exceeding 100 yards and the other exceeding 200.  Now ranked 25th in this poll (and 26th in the other national one):


Nebraska next week.  Can't wait...

Update Oct 22:
Two more weeks, two more victories -- a 34-7 drubbing of Nebraska followed by a 42-7 win over hapless Rutgers.  In the national rankings the Gophers moved up last week from 25th to 20th, and this week to 17th (AP) or 16th (Coaches poll):


This week's game will be against Maryland, at home.  ESPN gives them a 17-point spread with an 83% probability of winning the game.  That would put them at 8-0 for the first time since forever. Then a bye week to get ready for a November 9 showdown against #6-ranked Penn State.

Update November 8:
An easy 52-10 trouncing of the Maryland team that beat us by a similar score last year.   Season record 8-0 (5-0 in Big Ten), with national rank 13 because of softness of prior schedule.   The Gophers are 7-point underdogs in tomorrow's game vs. 5th-ranked Penn State.  Only once in the last 40 years have two undefeated Big Ten teams met this late in the season. 

Nobody is predicting a Minnesota win tomorrow.  They will have home-field advantage in front of the first 50,000-seat sellout crowd in probably ten years.  They do have adequate personnel to pull off the upset, and a one-score differential can be overcome by a couple turnovers.  And note this:
"Minnesota (8-0) is a 6.5-point home underdog to Penn State. In the last 40 seasons, teams 8-0 or better are 12-4 straight-up and 12-3-1 against the spread as home underdogs, per ESPN Stats and Information."
I'm sure that historical comparison doesn't include many matchups against other 8-0 teams.  I'll predict a 28-24 victory for Minnesota (and if they lose I can always erase this sentence...)

Update November 10:
No erasure necessary.   Reposted to add this highlight video from yesterday's game:



Unquestionably one of the most dramatic and significant victories in long history of Minnesota football.  

Update December 12
Nobody is reading this post nowadays except me, but I'll do another update or two just for completeness.  After the Penn State game the Gophers lost to Iowa, beat Northwestern, and then lost to Wisconsin, to finish the regular season with a 10-2 record, a bit better than my 9-3 prediction.  And they finish the regular season ranked 18th nationally. 

They are scheduled to play on New Year's Day in the Outback Bowl against 12th-ranked traditional SEC powerhouse Auburn, which beat Alabama and Oregon during the season and lost only to three top-10 ranked teams.  Auburn is an 80% favorite to win the game, with an 8 point spread.  I think the Gophers can beat them.  More on that closer to the date.

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