Nebraska was picked to win the Big Ten West division in a media poll conducted by cleveland.com leading up to Big Ten media days in Chicago.
Should Nebraska be the team picked to win the West? I love these sorts of questions, so to answer it I need to look in detail at the other teams in the West: Northwestern, Wisconsin, Purdue, Iowa, Minnesota and Illinois. When I’m through breaking down all of them, I’ll pick a team and explain why they’re my selection to win the West.
This is the last installment as I’ve already covered Illinois, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Iowa, Purdue, Northwestern and now Minnesota.
I’ll give my pick to Big Ten West in next week’s column. But until then, here’s the last team to break down: Minnesota.
The Golden Gophers seem to be a lot of fans’ dark horse to win the West. I can understand why, because they were one of the youngest rosters in all of college football last season – as many as nine freshmen started on offense in 2018, and according to Rivals.com, 97.1 percent of its offensive production is back, which is the most in the country.
Minnesota’s offense was middle-of-the-pack in the Big Ten last year. It was eighth in both scoring (28.9) and rushing (170.8 yards per game), ninth in total yards (379.6) and 10th in passing (208.8 ypg).
It is sophomore Tanner Morgan’s show now at quarterback after fellow sophomore Zack Annexstad sustained a foot injury this summer that will sideline him indefinitely. In nine games last year, Morgan completed 58.5 percent of his passes (89 of 152) for 1,401 yards and nine touchdowns. To me, he’s just OK. He’s not going to kill you and he’s not going to light your team up, either.
Morgan was 4-2 as a starter, and with nine starters returning on that offense, I’m thinking Minnesota has to improve from its 2018 numbers. It only makes sense.
Morgan should have the benefit of having an OK run game, too. Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks are the studs, but both are coming off injuries and might not ever be 100 percent again. Because those two weren’t fully available last season, Mohamed Ibrahim took advantage. The 5-foot-10, 210-pounder rushed for a team-high 1,176 yards and nine touchdowns.
The sophomore Ibrahim is a solid back, and Minnesota has a great group at that position, so the question of whether the Gophers will be able to run the ball will fall on the offensive line. That unit up front basically returns everyone except the left tackle, so it’s looking good.
Defensively, Minnesota loses its top two tacklers from last year in Blake Cashman and Jacob Huff, but it does return linebackers Thomas Barber (81 tackles), Kamal Martin (48) and, most importantly, defensive end and all-around stud, Carter Coughlin.
Coughlin is undersized as a traditional Big Ten defensive end at 6-4, 245, but he’s very versatile and will line up as a linebacker as well in some packages. Coughlin is likely an All-Big Ten defender and an NFL Draft pick. As a junior last season he led the Gophers with 9.5 sacks and 15 tackles for loss.
Like the offense, Minnesota’s defense was OK in 2019. It finished eighth in the conference in scoring defense (26.5), ninth in rush defense (173.38), seventh in pass defense (212.4) and sixth in total yards (385.8).
Yes, I’ll admit there are some holes to fill on that defense, but I expect the Gophers to have similar numbers in 2019, which will keep them in a lot of games.
I also think many of the people who picked Minnesota to win the West were looking at the Gophers’ schedule. It sets up nicely.
Minnesota doesn’t play the big dogs like Ohio State, Michigan or Michigan State this season. It gets Nebraska, Wisconsin and Penn State at home. Like I mentioned, that sets things up nicely for head coach PJ Fleck.
So, will Minnesota be rowing its boat all the way to Indianapolis? Could be. The Gophers absolutely have a great shot at doing so.
But I’ll wait for next Friday to make my West winner. Until then, have a nice Friday.