If there is one constant in college football, it is that you should expect the unexpected at all times. After all, who would’ve thought a Twitter joke would turn in to an actual rivalry trophy or that the Minnesota Gophers would own the Jug, Floyd of Rosedale and the $5-bits-of-broken-chair trophies at the same time.
Predicting that would’ve been very bold indeed. Even bolder? Putting all the chips in the middle for new head coach P.J. Fleck bringing you championships and New Year’s Day bowl games.
What would a preview week be without going out on a limb and giving you some predictions? While we look at the Gophers this season, what could we see happening? It’s time to go with some bold predictions.
Here are a few I can see happening in 2017…
Minnesota Will Take Home the Axe
This may be the boldest of bold predictions, if for no other reason than there is a long…long way to go from today to the end of November. A lot can happen in that time frame, but Minnesota and Wisconsin will clash to end the regular season and I can see all the stars aligning to allow the Gophers to win the axe.
First off, at some point in time the Gophers are going to stop the streak the Badgers are on. It currently stands at 12 games and could move to a baker’s dozen this season if my prediction doesn’t come true.
Add in a mix of I know the Badgers are good to screw up something really good and a dash of P.J. Fleck knows what Wisconsin is all about and you have the ingredients to make an upset possible.
I fully believe Wisconsin will come in to this game with a place in the College Football Playoff clearly on the line. They could also be sitting at 11-0 or 10-1 at this point, and in all my years covering this sport the one constant is that the Badgers will find a way to screw up what should happen. In this case, finishing off a CFB Playoff berth with a rivalry win against a team that has no chance of reaching the B1G championship game.
It would be the classic Wisconsin thing to do and it would be a huge motivator for the coming season for Fleck and his coaching staff.
Will it actually happen? Of course that remains to be seen, but don’t be surprised to see Fleck’s focus on getting the Axe back pay off in a major way.
Rodney Smith Will Lead the League in Rushing
Health plays a large factor in who wins a rushing title in the Big Ten, there’s no doubt about that. So do circumstances and schedules and that is where Smith has an advantage heading in to the 2017 season.
Most people are thinking stars like Justin Jackson of Northwestern or Penn State’s Saquon Barkley are the easy choices and they would be right. But, Smith is the third leading returning rusher in the Big Ten after racking up 1,158 yards in his sophomore season.
He’s an upperclassman now and I fully expect him to be the focal point of the offense as the passing game continues to evolve under Fleck and his coaching staff. While the offensive line may be a bit suspect after spring, I expect health to improve and the depth to be there in the fall.
Look for Smith to be more than a workhorse back, as he is second amongst returning rushers in touchdowns with 16 this past season.
It all equals someone who could easily take the league by storm and get the rushing title. It doesn’t mean he’s the best talent, but simply that he will be the most productive back in the conference, even with Shannon Brooks in the mix and also more healthy this season.
Minnesota Will Have a Top 25 Recruiting Class
I know, I know…the Gophers already have that.
But, this is May and not December and in to February with the new signing dates for the class of 2018 in order. Getting from the No. 16 class in the country with 13 commits today is far different from holding on to that class and that ranking when signing days happen.
The devil is in the details of how they are the No. 16 class today. First off, the 13 verbal commits are a large number and that certainly boosts their ranking score. But, it is also a class that has an average player rating of 85.00, and that is the part that tells you this team could get passed up in the rankings.
Schools like Michigan, UCLA, USC and even Wisconsin behind them all have far fewer players in the fold and a better player ranking average. So, expecting the Gophers to end up with a Top 25 class may indeed be a bold prediction.
There’s no doubt the Gophers recruiting has hit a different gear than at any point in time under Jerry Kill or Tracy Claeys. We’ll see what ends up happening, but look for Fleck to pull off a few surprises thanks to his relentless effort and energy.
He’ll get kids you weren’t expecting to buy in once they get on campus this fall. Will it be enough to put a Top 25 class together though? I say it will, and Minnesota will have a class it can build a solid foundation off of for Fleck’s future in the Twin Cities.