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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?

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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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Annexstad shows promise in Gophers debut

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Plenty of people were curious about the Minnesota Gophers starting quarterback coming in to the season opener. After all, it’s not often that a true freshman walk-on gets the starting nod. 

But, the attention and pressure of the first college game was not too much to handle for Gophers quarterback Zack Annextad. After a few shaky moments early on, Annexstad looked like he belonged on the field in the Gophers 48-10 victory over New Mexico State. 

Annexstad wasn’t super accurate, completing just 48 percent of his passes. But, he more than made up for it with a blistering 220 yards and two touchdowns. Additionally, he kept the Aggies from picking him off all game long. 

Perhaps the best bit of news is that it appears the Gophers may have more than one good target for Annexstad to work with. Veteran wide receiver Tyler Johnson was on point, catching five passes for 100 yards and both of the touchdown throws.

Rashod Bateman caught five passes and Chris Autman-Bell had four to his name as well. 

Meanwhile, sophomore wide receiver Seth Green looked dangerous as an all-around player. He touched the ball in the backfield twice and scored on both of those touches, giving future opponents plenty to think about when it comes to game-planning for the Gophers.

Minnesota also showed off an impressive run game after a rocky start on the ground. Star running back Rodney Smith racked up 153 yards and the Gophers ran for 295 yards and three touchdowns as a team. 

Add in a defense that allowed just 38 yards on the ground and only 10 points and there is a recipe for success going forward. 

Of course, one has to take in to consideration the caliber of opponent, but for a team with a lot of question marks on offense, there’s little doubt this was a confidence builder. 

While there will be plenty of improvement needed in order for Minnesota to be competitive come Big Ten play, this offense looks and feels different than it did a year ago. 

As far as debuts go, there certainly was promise shown from Annexstad and that’s really all you can ask for from a freshman making his first start. 

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Gophers, Huskers could have games altered by Oregon wildfires

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Mother Nature could wreak havoc on college football this upcoming weekend, but the majority of the news has been focused on an impending hurricane barring down on Florida.

A look out West and things are just as dangerous and deadly, as wildfires are raging in California, Oregon and Washington. That could present a big problem for the Minnesota Gophers game on Saturday night with the Oregon State Beavers and Nebraska’s visit to the Oregon Ducks.

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune cites sources within the Pac-12 saying that the game time may be moved or the game moved all together.

While the fire isn’t the problem, it is the air quality in the Eugene area that is. Oregon has already had to move practice closer to the Pacific Coast and the air in Eugene appears to be a major issue.

The smoke in Eugene, where an air protection agency listed the air quality as “hazardous,” prompted Oregon to move its Tuesday practice to Florence, near the Pacific coast.

The good news is that the smoke cleared enough a day later for the Ducks to return to practice in Eugene. But, there is reason to believe the game could still be an issue as smoke is expected to return.

The smoke is supposed to return at some point. But we just don’t know when. … There are too many variables for us to look that far ahead of time.”

Yes, that means we won’t know about the status of Nebraska-Oregon until Saturday itself.

Meanwhile, things don’t look as precarious for the Gophers matchup, but that doesn’t mean change would be out of the question.

“Based upon the information provided by the air protection agency and the expert health and safety advice of the respective University medical professionals, a decision will be made on whether or not to adjust game times and/or dates with the safety of student-athletes and fans as a priority,” Andrew Walker, the Pac-12’s vice president of public affairs, wrote in an e-mail to the (Portland) Oregonian.

Once again, it appears things are going to be in a wait-and-see mode in Corvallis as well.

It hasn’t affected Minnesota all that much, as they are more worried about playing at game that would kick at 9pm in Minneapolis if it were being played at home.

Head coach P.J. Fleck has talked this week about making sure players are staying up later as the week goes on to adjust their bodies. That’s especially important as practices are taking place first thing in the morning this season.

Either way, both of these programs are dealing with a lot of uncertainty right now and that may be the biggest hurdle to get over when prepping for Week 2.

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talking10 Power Poll: Surprises galore in Week 1 poll

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We’re back…after a long offseason, the staff is finally back to watching football, crunching numbers and giving you our opinions on all things Big Ten football.

It also means our weekly staff Power Poll is back as well.

This season we’ve got five staff members voting every week. That includes the following names:

Andy Coppens@AndyOnFootball

Phil Harrison@PhilHarrisonCFB

Philip Rossmann-Reich – @RiseNU

Dave Fitzgerald@BuckeyeFitzy

Zach Worthington@Worthyton

Normally the opening week of the season provides little in the way of knowledge, but that certainly wasn’t the case in 2017. Dare we say the first week of action for the Big Ten was highly entertaining?

You can say that, and we did over at the #B1GRewind Show.

But, how did all of that excitement shake out when it came time to vote? Let’s take a look at the official poll for Week 1:

Let’s just say things were a bit wackier than usual, huh?

Takeaways:

  • Only three teams lost this week, yet it was a winner, Illinois, coming up dead last and it wasn’t even close. The Illini’s unimpressive three-point win was also our winner for “Disappointment of the Week” on the #B1GRewind show…so perhaps their last place finish in the power poll this week was really warranted. It also appears that hanging tough with ranked teams meant a lot to our voters.
  • While the rest of the college football world is in love with Ohio State…our staff is much more in love with the Nittany Lions…well not “much more” but they won out with three first place votes and OSU falling outside the top two in one voters mind.
  • It appears there is going to be an interesting battle for the middle of the pack over the next few weeks. Michigan State was No. 7 in this poll, but had just a three-point lead on No. 10 Nebraska. Let’s just say the next few weeks should shake out the middle a bit more.
  • Speaking of close fights…the battle between Michigan and Wisconsin for the third spot should be an interesting one indeed. Can Wisconsin’s offense keep up the high-scoring and keep UW ahead or will Michigan’s exciting youth movement grow up fast enough to challenge for the top of the East division and thus our poll as well?
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talking10 Pick’Em league has arrived!

Join our staff in a season-long Big Ten predictions challenge! Come on…you know you want to know our picks and beat up on us for bad plays!

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We’ve had fun on the talking10 podcast giving you previews and predictions over the last few seasons. This year we’re turning that up a notch around here.

Yes, you can now play along with us each and every week! Welcome to the talking10 Pick’Em league brought you by Yahoo! Sports.

Each week you’ll hear us make our picks on Wednesday night and filling out our sheets live on the Podcast. You can play alongside all of our staff and shame us as you win or we get to laugh at you as we rise to the top.

This Pick’Em league is free of charge and is for more than just bragging rights. The winner at the end of the season gets a special prize package from us here at talking10. So join up with the following information:

League ID: 3991

Password: Delany17

Finally, please make sure to make your team name your Twitter handle or your first & last name so we have a way to reach out to you once the season is over….if you win!

We dare you to beat us! We double dog dare you!

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