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B1G Thoughts: Five questions for Minnesota

Minnesota finished 8-4 and tied for second in the Big Ten West, yet somehow had a disappointing season. Five questions they must answer to improve in 2022.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 02 Ohio State at Minnesota

It’s officially the football offseason. Some teams are celebrating great seasons while others are stuck licking their wounds and mending their broken pride. Regardless of how the 2021 season ended, all 14 Big Ten teams must put it in their rear-view mirror and look forward to the 2022 season. There have been coaching changes, outgoing and incoming transfers, players leaving for the draft, new schemes, and new expectations. The offseason allows fans to dream of a successful 2022 campaign, and it’s up to each individual program to make that a reality.

While that process has started for the teams, as fans we are beginning to ask the questions that programs need to answer to be successful. So that’s exactly what we’re going to do at Land-Grant Holy Land; Five Questions for each B1G team to answer this offseason.

Minnesota under head coach P.J. Fleck has been one of the most surprising teams in the Big Ten. They have reached a bowl game three times, finished one season 11-2, sent players to the NFL Draft and maybe most importantly found a way to beat their rival. Overall, Fleck’s tenure has been a success, but it can be described as close but not close enough. It’s hard to place expectations on a program that is overachieving, but the next step is to win the Big Ten West. If they hope to do that in 2022, they will need to answer these five questions.

What boost will the return of Mo Ibrahim bring?

Entering 2021, the Golden Gophers had arguably the best — or at minimum the most proven — running back in the Big Ten. That was shown with an emphatic performance in the first game of the season. Before a devastating injury that ended his season, Ibrahim was on a tour de force with 30 carries for 163 yards and two touchdowns against Ohio State. It was almost a guarantee without injury he would have run for 200-plus and maybe Minnesota wins the game.

Losing your star running back in the first game of the season can take the fight out of a team, yet Minnesota kept believing and stayed resilient on their way to an 8-4 season. Ibrahim was the first of many losses in the running back room, as Minnesota played a total of five running backs in 2021 due to injury.

The loss of Ibrahim was certainly felt, but after finishing 8-4 without him, the Gophers must ask what boost will Ibrahim bring to their team? How can they best use the depth gained by multiple running backs gaining experience this past season? Lastly, how do they use Mo’s elite skillset into a run at the Big Ten Championship Game.

How will they replace four starters on the offensive line?

In most cases, having to play five different running backs due to injury in one season is a sign of a down year. That is unless you have an offensive line that is full of experienced starters and multiple future NFL Draft picks. Not only was the Gophers line experienced, but they were also massive. If you watched any of their games, you would constantly see the comparison of their height and weights compared to NFL starting offensive lines.

Unfortunately for Fleck and Ibrahim, the Gophers are losing four starters: Sam Schluete, Conner Olson Blaise Andries, and Daniel Faalele. Faalele may have the most name recognition, but all four starters played over 90% of the snaps last season. Replacing four starters is a tall task, but any hope for 2022 begins with building a new offensive line that can lead the way for Ibrahim and protect Tanner Morgan.

Can the return of Kirk Ciarrocca improve the offense and Tanner Morgan?

Minnesota’s offense over the last few seasons has been a liability and unreliable — see the Bowling Green game, which led to the firing of offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr. Instead of hiring someone brand new, Fleck decided to get the band back together by bringing back former OC Kirk Ciarrocca, who left after the 2019 season to coach at Penn State.

Ciarrocca was the offensive coordinator for Minnesota’s best season ever, going 11-2 and barely missing the Big Ten West Championship. This season coincided with Tanner Morgan’s best season in Minneapolis, throwing for 3,532 yards and 30 touchdowns with a 66% completion percentage. Overall, under Ciarrocca, Morgan broke multiple records, but he has struggled to recapture the magic after his departure. Fleck knows this is the last season with Morgan and Ibrahim. This hire is him placing a bet that Ciarrocca can recapture the magic. This offseason will be critical to answering the question of whether or not that is in the cards.

Will the defense carry its success into 2022?

Last season, the Gophers had one of the best defenses in the nation. They limited teams to 97.5 yards rushing and 181.2 passing yards per game good — for seventh and ninth in the nation, respectively. They were also top 10 in scoring defense, allowing a measly 17.3 points per game. Great defense is one of the hardest things to carry over season to season, but Fleck will be hoping to maintain their defensive success in 2022. Even if they’re not top 10 in every category but can maintain a top 20 or 30 defense, they may be able to leverage that into their first Big Ten title game appearance.

How did they lose to Bowling Green and how to avoid similar upsets?

Under most cases 8-4 seasons are worth celebrating. The Golden Gophers finished second in the Big Ten West, beat their rival Wisconsin and went to their third bowl game under Fleck, improving to 3-0 in postseason appearances. Yet, there is a nagging feeling that Fleck’s squad underperformed. That is largely due to two unacceptable losses to Bowling Green and Illinois.

Under the guidance of former OC Mike Sanford Jr., their offense never showed up in those games, losing 14-10 to Bowling Green and 14-6 to Illinois. Scoring 16 total points against two of the worst opponents on your schedule can lead to an uneasiness that permeates the fan base. Minnesota should have finished the season 10-2, but instead had to settle for 8-4. Maybe it’s as simple as getting Ibrahim back or Ciarrocca, but Fleck will have to figure out firstly why his team played down to their opponents, and secondly how to avoid shocking losses like that in 2022 and beyond.