The college football preview magazines hit newsstands (or online locales to download) earlier this month. It’s a rite of summer to see where your squad sets up for the fall.
The outlets shared many numbers and perspectives on where this year’s Gophers team will be after posting a 3-4 record in the pandemic-altered 2020 season.
Minnesota will share some of its perspective on the program’s outlook during Big Ten Media Days in Indianapolis on Thursday. Minnesota is sending four representatives to the annual preseason kickoff event: head coach P.J. Fleck, running back Mo Ibrahim, defensive end Boye Mafe and quarterback Tanner Morgan.
Here are some items that jumped out in the preview mags about how Minnesota could fare this fall:
Phil Steele’s 2021 College Football Preview — which is packed with information, often in fine print and abbreviations over 352 total pages — has pegged Minnesota as the most-experienced team in FBS.
The Gophers have 10 returning starters on each side of the ball from last season, with only receiver Rashod Bateman and cornerback Benjamin St-Juste gone to the NFL. Two others who got spot starts in 2020 have departed: defensive tackle Keonte Schad transferred transfer to Oregon State and tight end Jake Paulson medically retired.
Steele, who sets out his formula in a lengthy write-up, puts Minnesota’s total points at 99.5 out of 100. While it seems a bit too high, it’s buoyed by a No. 1 ranking in “big plays on defense,” meaning guys back with sacks, interceptions and tackles for lost yards.
For anyone who saw how much the Gophers struggled on defense last year, this might not the great harbinger. But that unit a year ago had to replace seven starters (and four NFL draft picks) and got better as the season progressed.
Minnesota's top billing in this category is also boosted by combined offensive line starts at 181, which is second only to Miami (Fla.) at 190.
Steele’s experience chart does not resemble a preseason Top 25, with Texas-San Antonio No. 2, Wyoming third, Toledo fourth and Eastern Michigan fifth. The second most-experienced Big Ten Ten teams are Illinois and Rutgers.
Steele, meanwhile, has the Gophers at No. 49 on his power rankings of all 130 programs.
At a loss
Athlon Sports found the Gophers had the lowest rate of tackles for lost yards in the nation last season. The Gophers had 18 total TFLs across 422 defensive snaps in its seven games for a rate of 4.3 percent, the magazine said.
The Gophers’ leader was Mafe at 5 1/2 TFLs. Minnesota's linebackers combined for 2 1/2, a number that should be boosted with the addition of Clemson transfer defensive tackle Nyles Pinckney, who will be help keep LBs clean to make plays behind the line of scrimmage, as well as the return of linebacker Braelen Oliver, who had a serious knee injury that took out his 2020 season.
Pick a number
Pro Football Focus College has a slew of other new-age analytics to comb through on the Gophers.
The most-alarming number: The Gophers allowed 3.5 rushing yards before contact per attempt, “the worst mark by a Power Five team in at least the last seasons.”
This had PFF asking a blunt question: “Can they play defense?”
The most-telling number: The Gophers used run-pass option plays on offense at “the fourth-highest-rate in the country.”
As an aside to this ranking, one of the primary storylines going into the season is will Morgan keep the ball more on RPOs to keep defenses honest from putting all their attention on Ibrahim, the reigning Big Ten running back of the year?
The most-puzzling number: Morgan’s passing grade fell by about 20 points from a banner 2019 season to 2020, and although he “had the same average depth of target on RPOs in 2020 as 2019, his yards per attempt fell from 10.3 to 6.7 on those throws.”
Gophers offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr.’s first season with Morgan was interrupted by a severely shortened spring ball and a herky-jerky fall camp in 2020. So last spring was spent getting on the same page and finding the plays his QB does best.
More PFF stats
— Mafe’s win rate on pass rushes is 21.7 percent, which ranks sixth among Power Five edge defenders with 200 pass rushes since 2018. Mafe had 4 1/2 sacks in 2020, three more than any other Minnesota player.
— No. 2 receiver Daniel Jackson had some good moments in 2020 and finished with 12 receptions for 167 yards, but the true freshman and former four-star recruit had a low “58.0 grade and a 20-percent drop rate,” the analytics site said.
— Massive offensive tackle Daniel Faalele, back after opting out in 2020, had a strong finish to his 2019 season. “In his last six games, he trailed only Tristan Wirfs and Rashawn Slater for the best PFF grade by a Big Ten offensive tackle — both of whom are now in the NFL.” Faalele “is capable of breaking out into elite status in 2021,” PFF College said.
— With St-Juste gone to the Washington Football Team in the third round of the 2021 NFL draft, cornerback Coney Durr has a bigger role this fall. “The sixth-year senior is one of the highest-graded outside corners in the Big Ten since 2018 and he ranks second in yards per target allowed in single overage of the past two years,” PFF said.