Big Ten West Division Signals Potential
It’s looking like the football Gophers could intensify their rivalries with Wisconsin and Iowa in coming years. While it’s unknown when Big Ten football will start its 2020 season, the three programs are having impressive offseason recruiting results after being bunched at the top of the West Division standings in 2019.
Minnesota’s 2021 recruiting class is currently ranked No. 8 nationally by 247Sports, the often quoted college football authority. The Gophers have 16 high school players who have verbally committed to coach P.J. Fleck, including five four-star players.
Iowa’s class is ranked No. 10 and the Hawkeyes have 15 commits, with three of them four-stars. Wisconsin is No. 18 with three four-star commits among its 10 player total.
Recruiting rankings will reshuffle a lot between now and Signing Day in December. Yet the early and impressive ranking of the three programs makes a statement about Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin.
The Gophers are expected to have about four or five more scholarships available for the 2021 class. That means about 75 percent of the class is already in place. If things hold, Fleck will have the most four-stars since he came to Minnesota in January of 2017.
With the momentum of 2019’s 11-2 team record and breakthrough season, and the recruiting success of this winter and spring, Minnesota could add more four-star players to its class of 2021. Five-star recruits are rare but a possibility for Minnesota.
The Gophers, Hawkeyes and Badgers are recruiting various states including nearby Illinois. The University of Illinois program has fallen on hard times, causing state players to have reservations about joining the Illini who have heavily turned to the transfer portal for help.
Five of Minnesota’s 15 players in the 2021 recruiting class are from Illinois, including three four-star commits. So far this year Iowa has two players from Illinois, including a four-star offensive tackle, and the Badgers have one Illinois native.
Last season Minnesota had a 7-2 Big Ten record, tied for best in the West Division with the Badgers. Iowa was right behind at 6-3. All three programs were in the top 15 teams in the final Associated Press national rankings. The Gophers had an impressive bowl win over SEC power Auburn, the Hawkeyes beat USC by 25 points and the Badgers had a one-point loss to Pac-12 power Oregon.
Both Wisconsin and Iowa have consistently fielded winning teams for decades. That isn’t likely to change as long as the present leaders of those programs remain in place. It’s up to Fleck and the Gophers to match that consistency and even exceed it on a path to excellence.
There’s still plenty for Minnesota to prove but each of Fleck’s teams have outdone their predecessors. That’s an encouraging sign, along with the 2021 recruiting and how it appears the Gophers are not only upgrading the talent pool, but building roster depth.
There may be no better example of the latter than the vital quarterback position. The bluebloods of college football didn’t want Kentucky native Tanner Morgan when he was in high school, but Fleck saw his potential. Now looking at his redshirt junior season, Morgan is forecast as an early round NFL Draft choice in 2021. Morgan’s replacement could be redshirt sophomore Zack Annexstad who at one time beat out Morgan as the starter. The QB roster also includes two redshirt scholarship freshmen and 2021 pledge Athan Kaliakmanis, who is one of Minnesota’s four-star commits from Illinois.
In the future the Gophers must contend with not only facing Iowa and Wisconsin, but also Northwestern led by Pat Fitzgerald—a master of getting more from less at the Big Ten’s only private school and a place where fan support is sometimes buried in apathy. Nebraska, with perhaps the Big Ten’s most passionate fan-base, could come alive after two disappointing seasons under state native and head coach Scott Frost, who has recruiting ties not only to his home state but also to Florida. Purdue, too, has potential led by offensive guru and head coach Jeff Brohm.
The Big Ten West has long been a step-child to the Big Ten East Division but the gap could be closing. If Minnesota, and say Nebraska, become annual dynamos, and Iowa and Wisconsin stay strong, look out for the “Wild West.”
Former Gophers basketball player and assistant coach Al Nuness praised the news yesterday that Minneapolis native Jeff Mailhot is joining coach Richard Pitino’s staff at Minnesota. Mailhot has a detailed resume of college and high school coaching including at Hopkins where he worked for head man Ken Novak, who probably has produced more Division I standouts than any coach in state history. Nuness knows both Mailhot and Novak, and said the two have a close relationship. “That’s a great hire,” Nuness said.
Birthdays: Gophers baseball coach John Anderson and 1991 Twins World Series star Jack Morris both turned 65 last Saturday. Jared Nuness, Al’s son and an assistant basketball coach at Baylor, is 41 today (May 19). Bud Grant, who coached the Vikings to four Super Bowls, will be 93 Wednesday.
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