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Minnesota Gophers Football Preview: Lessons from the 2016 season

What did the 2016 season teach us about the 2017 Minnesota Gophers football team?

As they say, you have to understand where you were before you can know where you are going. With all of that in mind, we begin our look at the 2017 Minnesota Gophers football program with a look back at 2016.

The 2016 season saw the Gophers compete, but still fall short at the top of the Big Ten West division. Arch-rival Wisconsin ran away with the division, Minnesota’s program had a major black eye due to a sexual assault claim against multiple student-athletes and Tracy Claeys was gone by the end of it all.

Minnesota finished at 5-4 in Big Ten play, two games back of the Badgers and in fifth place in a crowded middle of the West division. Given all of that, there is plenty to dissect from the 2016 season. So, let’s dive in to what got us to where we are today.

The Good

Tracy Claeys is gone.

Look, I like the guy as a person. He is a quality man who cares about his players on and off the field and is one of the better people in a sleazy profession. But, Claeys was not moving this program forward in any meaningful way.

Even his decisions to let coaches go and transition to new minds on offense didn’t lead to much change. Claeys seemed to be paralyzed by a head that told him change was needed and a heart that wasn’t ready to fully let go offensively.

There’s also the matter of how his original hire happened. It was on the heels of Jerry Kill stepping aside and a massive transition on hold across the athletic department. Had athletics director Mark Coyle been hired sooner, Claeys may never had gotten the job in the first place.

One year later and Claeys’ public spat with the administration gave Coyle and Co. all the ammunition needed to can him. It’s hard to say it wasn’t a smart move, as the hottest name in college football coaching, P.J. Fleck, came aboard.

The Bad

Minnesota had a 5-4 record in Big Ten play. On the surface that may not have seemed like a bad thing, but the devil is in the details of that record and the details tell us a not-so-good story.

That’s because all four of the Gophers’ losses last season came at the hands of the four best Big Ten teams they faced. Minnesota lost to Iowa, Nebraska, Penn State and Wisconsin in conference play, while beating only Northwestern to really hang its hat on.

About the only thing Minnesota could hang its hat on during those losses is that apart from the Wisconsin game, the Gophers were right in all of them until the bitter end. The Gophers’ four conference losses came by an average of 7.75 points per game, but only the season-ending loss to Wisconsin came by more than a touchdown.

That had to be frustrating, and it certainly was bad news for Tracy Claeys, who couldn’t get a senior-laden team over the finish line in the big games needed to up the competitive level of his program. While to off-field stuff was easy fodder for letting him go, losing like that against the best of the Big Ten didn’t help either.

The Ugly

We’ve mentioned some of this already, but that Iowa game was downright brutal to watch and to see the Gophers drop. 14-7 games can either mean really good defense (which believe it or not can be fun to watch) or some really bad offense happening.

The latter was certainly true in this one as neither team wanted to take care of the football. Iowa and Minnesota combined for four interceptions and two lost fumbles (5 total fumbles) in a sloppy affair. It wasn’t like there was a lot of pressure happening in the game either, with three total sacks between the two teams in the game.

Simply put, this was the game that Minnesota should have won if it was to be competitive at the top of the West division. It also is the tape anyone who wanted to know why Claeys wasn’t right for the job should have put on.

The loss to Iowa came on the heels of a good performance, but a three-point loss to eventual East division champions, Penn State. Minnesota should’ve been motivated by that quality performance. Instead, it came out against its rivals and laid a total egg and watched as Floyd of Rosedale went to Iowa.

It was not a good look all the way around, especially at home.

What it All Means for 2017:

One thing last season taught us all is that this program had peaked under previous leadership. It would compete, but ultimately fall short against West division rivals Iowa, Nebraska and Wisconsin. So, getting P.J. Fleck in the fold should pay dividends.

Given all the changes in personnel on the squad and on the coaching staff, we really don’t know what to expect from the Gophers this upcoming season.

The question that needs to be answered is just how quickly this team changes and how quickly those chances are born out in the win-loss column. With few star-quality players left on the roster, Fleck is going to have his work cut out for him in year one.

It will be fun to watch how this team changes between spring and the fall, that much is for sure.

Andy Coppens is the Founder and Publisher of Talking10. He's a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and has been covering college sports in some capacity since 2008. You can follow him on Twitter @AndyOnFootball

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