Head coach P.J. Fleck takes over the reins at Minnesota after leading Western Michigan to its first-ever double-digit win season and it’s first-ever mention in the AP Top 25. The Broncos finished 2016 at 13-1, ranked No. 15 in the final AP. They also captured their first MAC championship since 1988.
He assumes responsibility for a Golden Gopher program that hasn’t posted 13 wins since 1904 and hasn’t been ranked in the postseason Top 15 since 1962. The last time Minnesota won the Big Ten was in 1967.
Can Fleck realistically manufacture the kind of results he achieved in the MAC West in the Big Ten West?
The Golden Past
How many FBS programs do you think have earned more recognized national championships than Minnesota?
25? 35? 50?
How about seven?
That’s right – only seven FBS schools have more national titles than the Golden Gophers’ six: Alabama (15), Notre Dame (13), Michigan (11), USC (10), Pitt (9), Ohio State (8) and Oklahoma (7).
Minnesota has one more title than both Miami (Fla.) and Nebraska, two more than LSU, Penn State, and Texas and three more than Auburn, Florida, and Florida State.
Equally stunning is how the Golden Gophers’ 18 all-time Big Ten titles stacks up – third in a conference jammed with storied programs.
The only two schools with more Big Ten hardware are Michigan (42) and Ohio State (35). Notables with fewer titles than Minnesota are Wisconsin (14) and Iowa (11). As far as Penn State (with four titles) and Nebraska (0), they joined the conference later – in 1993 and 2011 respectively.
Minnesota’s national championships stretch from 1904-1960 and its Big Ten titles date from 1900-1967. Its last Top 10 finish was in 1962. Since then, the Golden Gophers have posted 30 sub-.500 marks in 54 tries.
It all adds credence to the argument that the achievements are nothing more than products of a bygone era that is, well and truly, gone. But, before poo pooing a resurgence of the once mighty gridiron Gopher, consider the case of programs like Michigan State and Ole Miss.
Michigan State won four national titles from 1951-1966 and six Big Ten crowns from 1953-1990. Before finishing No. 3 in the final AP poll in 2013, the Spartans’ most recent Top 5 finish was in 1966. In the 47 seasons between the two, they suffered 19 losing seasons.
Ole Miss won the big enchilada in 1959, 1960, and 1962 along with six SEC crowns from 1947-1963. Before finishing at No. 10 in 2015, the Rebels most recently hit the final AP Top Ten in 1969. Its gap between the two high-water marks was 46 years, during which it suffered 21 losing seasons.
Both Michigan State and Ole Miss suffered through long, drawn out periods of darkness when past success seemed to mean nothing more than – you guessed – ancient history. The reality was, in both cases, that national championship contention was just around the corner.
All the Right Stuff
Despite the long lean years, P.J. Fleck is walking into an ideal situation at Minnesota. Though he’s not taking over at Oregon, LSU or Texas – he’s also not the new guy at Purdue or Indiana. Take a look at the facts.
This just in…Minnesota doesn’t suck.
The Golden Gophers are 31-21 since 2013 and fresh off winning back-to-back bowl games. The 9-4 record they posted last season was the best since 2003’s 10-3 team.
After going 8-16 in Big Ten play from 2011-13, Minnesota improved to 12-13 from 2014-16. That includes a lowly 2-6 mark in 2015, the worst performance since 2012. Though it may not seem like earth-shattering stuff, the Gophers were one win away from the conference championship game last season.
They also finished 2016 ranked in the Top 25 in the FBS in major statistical categories like scoring defense (No. 21), rushing defense (No. 14) and turnover margin (No. 19).
The numbers don’t lie…Minnesota was moving in the right direction before the coaching change.
The Big Ten West
The Golden Gophers did well by landing in the West division of the Big Ten when the league was split into the East/West format in 2014. Though they still must grapple with conference heavyweights like Wisconsin, Nebraska and Iowa – national contenders from the East like Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, and Michigan State are met on a rotating, as opposed to permanent, basis.
The West provides a better platform for a team making a historic turnaround. It affords the Gophers a more realistic avenue for such a surge than say Maryland or Indiana in the East.
Minnesota’s schedule sets up well for Fleck’s first year at the helm. In non-conference play, it has a road trip to Oregon State and then Buffalo and Middle Tennessee at home in Minneapolis. From the Big Ten East it draws Maryland, Michigan State, and Michigan. Though that’s no picnic, Ohio State and Penn State aren’t an issue. It also gets fellow West heavyweights Wisconsin and Nebraska at home.
Phil Steele ranks the Gophers’ slate as the 102nd most difficult out of the 130 FBS programs in 2017. It’s the second easiest in the entire Big Ten, just eight slots harder than Indiana at No. 110.
The common denominator in the football revivals at Michigan State and Ole Miss are a coaching change. The right guy, at the right place, at the right time.
In the 10 seasons before Mark Dantonio took over at Michigan State, the Spartans went 56-52, earned one double-digit win season, and finished in the AP Top 25 once. In the ten seasons since he became head coach, they’ve gone 90-42, posted five 10-plus win records, and finished ranked six times.
At Ole Miss, the Rebels went 27-35 in the five seasons before Hugh Freeze took charge vs. 39-25 in the five years since. Even more significantly, where they won only 10 SEC games from 2007-11 (pre-Freeze), they won 19 from 2012-16 (with Freeze).
Both scenarios compare well with what Fleck achieved at Western Michigan. In the four seasons before his tenure, the Broncos went 21-27 vs. the 30-22 mark during his run. That includes a 1-11 record in his first year (2013). Minus the slow start, WMU went 29-11 with Fleck, the best three years in the history of the program.
The most exciting element of a transformation is that the origins can’t be traced until after the change takes place. Could the 2017 season be the beginning of something glorious for Minnesota football?
Statistics courtesy of Sports Reference College Football.