Can P.J. Fleck and Minnesota football see a comeback in 2024?

Quick Lane Bowl - Bowling Green v Minnesota
Quick Lane Bowl - Bowling Green v Minnesota / Aaron J. Thornton/GettyImages

Minnesota football, while in no way snake-bitten, is a team that sits miles away from the sport's blue-bloods. With that in mind, its 11-2 season in 2019 and back-to-back 9-4 seasons in 2021 and 2022 made for quite a leap in the perception of its brand.

But alas, all good things must come to an end, and for Minnesota, that was last year.

The Gophers finished their 2023 run at 6-7 (5-7 in regular season, squeaked into bowl vacancy and beat Bowling Green), marking their worst full-season finish since 2017, head coach P.J. Fleck’s first in Minneapolis. Speaking of Fleck, combining the competitive drop with previous reports of him spawning a “toxic” culture (which is not a new subject) puts him in many people’s sights for the hot seat.

The hit-or-miss status left me arguing in his defense last May, before the unflattering 2023 showing. But guess what? I’m not going to let it stop me from defending him again. And why? Because I firmly believe that he and his Golden Gophers are in for a grand return in 2024.

What is it that makes this thought feel so real?

I recently highlighted Indiana as a team worth watching this upcoming college football season, as the Hoosiers saw a couple of respectable years (at least by their standards) before falling off, all just to enter this year with the pieces necessary for an epic bounce back.

Upon looking at Minnesota, I find its current circumstances are hardly different, with the convenience of its schedule being the prime difference-maker, which begins right away in Week 1 against the North Carolina Tar Heels.

That may be a bit of a curveball for some, as UNC is certainly not a pushover program, having legendary head coach Mack Brown at the helm and consistently producing top-notch talent at the quarterback position. Not only that, but the Tar Heels rolled right past the Golden Gophers last September. However, none of that changes the fact that Minnesota’s odds of winning the rematch are about as encouraging as can be.

This is thanks to multiple factors, including the game taking place in Minneapolis and how season-openers typically add a layer of unpredictability to high-profile matchups. Also, with the outstanding Drake Maye heading off to the NFL, North Carolina’s offensive identity will have little solidity coming fresh out of the gate.

But regardless of the result, Minnesota shouldn’t have to overcome much adversity in the couple of weeks that follow it, with the other two non-conference meetings being fellow home games against Rhode Island and Nevada. With the Rams being FCS and the Wolfpack having just gone 2-10, I’d like to think there won’t be much backlash against me saying that the Gophers will enter Big Ten play with a 2-1 record at worst.

Speaking of which, what makes Minnesota’s Big Ten slate so reassuring?

As we discussed when covering Indiana, the Big Ten is in no way a comforting league, and Minnesota’s 2024 introduction to it captures that beautifully, with its first two opponents being Iowa (10-win team that just won its division) and Michigan (its first road opponent of the season, coming off a 15-0 natty run). But wait, don’t throw in the towel just yet; the Gophers have a lot going their way entering both battles.

For starters, the Hawkeyes have continuously fielded an inadequate offense, and their 12-10 loss to the Golden Gophers last year was one of the most-telling products of it. While they’ve since made an effort to fix the hideous flaw, it will surely be combated a great deal by them being in Minneapolis this time around. Therefore, we could quite possibly be in store for another installment of this rivalry going Minnesota’s way.

Then we have Michigan, which holds an image so insurmountable that I feel the need to reinforce a message I stressed throughout my piece on the Hoosiers: Today’s takeaway should not be that the Golden Gophers will beat all of the Big Ten powers mentioned today.

Rather, it should simply be that their chances of doing so are stronger than they seem. And how is this the case when staring down the defending national champ, you may ask? The same way it is for Indiana — by all the personnel the Wolverines have lost.

Sure, the Hoosiers have a couple of additional advantages, from being able to host the game to being placed on a poorer part of Michigan’s schedule, yet the departures of several impact players and legendary head coach Jim Harbaugh reign supreme in not just making things slightly problematic, but leaving the team as a mere shell of its 2023 form.

Will Minnesota win? I don’t know. However, what I do know is that its window of victory is exponentially wider than it was last year, and that’s good enough for me to throw the Wolverines into this conversation.

From there, things only get easier for the Gophers

Luckily for Minnesota, that’s about as dicey as things are going to get, as while the names set to follow Michigan have been formidable in recent memory, they can’t even see the bar the Wolverines set last season. This stretch of opponents appropriately begins with what was one of college football’s most disappointing teams in 2023, the USC Trojans.

Despite having previously been under the command of Heisman-winning quarterback Caleb Williams and knocking on the door of the CFP, the Trojans just finished with five losses. To make matters worse, they are also losing Williams, going to Minneapolis, and facing the Gophers at a terrible time. In other words, they’re essentially North Carolina 2.0 until further notice.

After USC comes a bit more of the same, with UCLA (road foe) and Maryland being next on the agenda. Both the Bruins and Terrapins lost five games last season before enduring personnel changes at crucial positions (UCLA with head coach Chip Kelly and Maryland with QB Taulia Tagovailoa, among others). Throw that stuff in with the much-needed bye week between them and we got another manageable pair of battles for the Golden Gophers.

Beyond those two, we see the quality of opposition drop even lower with road trips to Illinois and Rutgers. Sure, Illinois may have just beaten Minnesota in enemy territory, but the win was decided by one whopping point; common sense dictates that their game being that close in 2023 keeps the door wide open for revenge in 2024. As for the Scarlet Knights, they went 7-6 and have never beaten the Gophers (heck, in the P.J. Fleck era, they haven’t even come within 30 points of them).

And it’s from here where things only get harder…or do they?

That brings us to Week 11, which serves as Minnesota bye week No. 2 and perfectly so, as it is soon followed by a last-second spike on the radar, courtesy of a run-in with the Penn State Nittany Lions in Minneapolis. But don’t worry, it’s not nearly as bad as it seems.

Though PSU is the toughest name on the schedule outside of Michigan, Minnesota has the combination of its quick breather and home atmosphere that it will both welcome wholeheartedly and benefit greatly from. The help is limited I know, but especially when considering the Nittany Lions don’t play the Golden Gophers often and are 0-2 against them on the road since 2010, it’s far better than nothing.

Last but definitely not least, we have Minnesota’s rivalry — but it’s not just any rivalry. Instead, it is, competitively speaking, the best rivalry in all of college football: The battle with Wisconsin for Paul Bunyan’s Axe. The all-time record in this series is 63-62-8, with the Badgers just breaking the tie last year, and while the bulk of the 21st century has gone UW’s way, the past several seasons have revived the intensity that their iconic war is all about.

Now I don’t build up this showdown just to get you hyped for the fall — though that would be a fair motive on its own — I also do it to prove how unpredictable it can be.

And I say that in spite of the Penn State game preceding it on Minnesota’s end, along with Wisconsin’s 2023 victory over the Gophers being both on the road and decided by two touchdowns, as it doesn’t change the fact that while under Fleck, they’ve gotten multiple wins over just as good of if not better Badgers teams in the past.

In short, the modern precedent of this rivalry implies that it could not be any further from a cakewalk for either party, making it yet another encounter that could very well tilt in Minnesota’s favor.

So, what have we learned today? I’d say we now know that the Minnesota Golden Gophers have a 2024 schedule made up of two types of games: Those they will win, and those they have fair shots of winning. Sounds pretty bright for the future of a team that’s coming off a losing record.

Again, does that mean the Gophers will be some powerhouse on the brink of a playoff push? Of course not. But, does it mean they could be on a come-up sharp enough for Fleck to keep his job? Absolutely.

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