Fleck’s Gophers keep getting close. Can they move the needle season?

Aaron Lavinsky, Star Tribune/Star Tribune/TNS

From workplace watercoolers to barstools at the local pub and even bleachers at the State Fair, Minnesota sports fans spend August speculating on how many games the Gophers football team will win.

It's a straightforward question with a complex answer. One might have an educated guess on how many games a team will win, but predicting the future is never 100% accurate.

P.J. Fleck begins his seventh season as Gophers coach on Thursday night against Nebraska at Huntington Bank Stadium. The season promises to be one of transition, with mainstays like Tanner Morgan, Mohamed Ibrahim and John Michael Schmitz having exhausted their eligibility. That trio, aided earlier by stars such as Antoine Winfield Jr., Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman, helped Minnesota compile a 29-10 record over the past three full seasons.

"We came here to win championships,'' Fleck said. "We came here to build something that hasn't been built here for a very long time.''

Toward that goal, Fleck has raised the bar. The Gophers' win percentage of 74.4% in those last three full seasons — excluding the 3-4 mark in the COVID-19-shortened 2020 campaign — is the program's best three-season stretch since the 1960-62 teams went 22-6-1 (77.6%). With that comes heightened expectations, of which Fleck is well aware. Fans reveled in the Outback Bowl win over Auburn and the top-10 finish in the 2019 season, and they want more of that success.

Fleck was asked last week if he thought the program was where he hoped it would be at this stage of his career. His answer was telling in how the target is constantly moving.

"No matter what I say, people can poke holes in that piece,'' he said. "If we win one [Big Ten] West title, people will say, 'Why didn't you win two?' If we went to the championship and didn't win it, it would be, 'Why didn't you win the championship?'

"I think where we're at, we've gotten the most out of every single football team," he said. "As a coach, you've got to be able to say, 'OK, did you squeeze all the juice from the orange? Did you exhaust every option?' "

The challenge ahead

As successful as the 2019, '21 and '22 seasons were — a first-place tie in the division and two second-place ties — the Gophers haven't broken through completely to win the West outright and play in the Big Ten title game. Had they defeated either Iowa or Wisconsin in 2019, they would have taken an 11-1 record into Indianapolis and might have ended up in the Rose Bowl. Flip the loss to Iowa in 2021 or the loss to Purdue last year, and the Gophers are playing in Indy.

Tantalizingly close, yet still one win short.

"We're not comparing yourself to anybody else — that will steal your joy," Fleck said. "We compare ourselves to who we were yesterday and try to be better today than we were yesterday.''

The path to the Big Ten title game becomes more challenging — or opportunistic, as Fleck describes it — in the final season of the East-West format. Where Minnesota's schedule ramps up the most this year is in its crossover games against East opponents.

The Gophers play both No. 2 Michigan and No. 3 Ohio State, along with Michigan State. That trio went 29-10 last year with the Wolverines and Buckeyes reaching the College Football Playoff.

In 2022, the Gophers went 2-1 in their East crossovers against Michigan State, Penn State and Rutgers, teams that were a combined 20-17. In 2021, the Gophers were 2-1 against the East trio of Ohio State, Maryland and Indiana, which were a combined 20-18.

How big of a challenge do Michigan and Ohio State present? In 1967, the Gophers beat Michigan on the way to winning a share of the Big Ten championship, their last conference title. Since then, they are 4-43 against the Wolverines and 2-40 against the Buckeyes.

"Everyone knows what the schedule is. So, there's only one one option and that's to go attack it,'' said Gophers center Nathan Boe, a sixth-year senior. "We know it's coming. It's not like we can run away from it, so we're just embracing it every day.''

No gimmes

The nonconference slate also is more ambitious than it was the past two seasons. All three nonconference opponents — Eastern Michigan, No. 21 North Carolina and Louisiana — played in bowl games last year and were a combined 24-19.

In 2022, the trio of New Mexico State, FCS-level Western Illinois and Colorado were a combined 8-28. In 2021, the nonconference slate of Miami (Ohio), Colorado and Bowling Green (which beat the Gophers) were a combined 15-22.

With that tougher schedule, the Gophers aren't expected — at least by media members and oddsmakers — to break through in the West. They were picked to finish third in the division, behind Wisconsin and Iowa, in the preseason poll of conference media members.

The sportsbook has set Minnesota's over/under win total at seven. And a sampling preseason bowl projections has the Gophers slated for mid- to lower-tier contests including the Music City (Nashville), Guaranteed Rate (Phoenix) and Quick Lane (Detroit).

The Gophers' schedule figures to become even more challenging in 2024, when USC, UCLA, Washington and Oregon join the Big Ten to make an 18-team conference. A tougher slate and increased expectations are challenges Fleck wants his team to embrace in order to lift the program.

"On the field you want to win at the highest level,'' he said. "This is why this schedule is the most opportunistic schedule in the country. Is it challenging? Yes. Do I ignore that? No, but I'm in charge of putting it in young people's minds of how to go attack this thing."

"They know how hard that's going to be," Fleck added. "And they've trained since January for it, which doesn't promise you anything, but it gives you a better chance. And we keep stacking chances on top of each other.''