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Fleck Open to Playing Elite Teams

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September 13, 2022

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The nature of big-time college football scheduling is to book opponents 10 years and further into the future. There is nothing in motion right now, but University of Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck is open to scheduling games against the biggest names in the country.

Asked Monday about taking on a prominent team from the Southeastern Conference or Notre Dame, Fleck said: “I think you always want to think that way—some of the best brands in college football. We’d love to have (them) come to Huntington Bank (Stadium) and also go to those places. But those are…decisions as you keep moving forward and seeing what slots are open, and what years are open. But definitely open to that.”

The Gophers are playing nonconference opponents now booked by previous athletic directors and head coaches. The Gopher media guide shows nonconference foes through 2028 with California, Mississippi State and North Carolina having the most box office power. The slate also includes the likes of Eastern Illinois, Eastern Michigan, Louisiana and North Dakota.

Minnesota wraps up its nonconference schedule with Colorado at Huntington Bank Stadium on Saturday. The Buffaloes are the only Power Five team among the three opponents making up the nonconference schedule (all played at home). The Gophers handily defeated FBS lower tier New Mexico State and FCS level Western Illinois.

There is logic to the ho-hum nonconference schedules the Gophers and other Power Five programs have utilized for decades. Part of it is wanting to ensure a fast start to the season, playing opponents the Gophers are usually superior or at least equal to. Minnesota teams often go into the Big Ten schedule 3-0. Fleck’s nonconference record at Minnesota, including bowl games, is 16-1.

Another major element driving Minnesota football scheduling is financial. The athletic department budgets for seven home games. The department wants the revenue from seven games in Minneapolis, not six. With the Big Ten’s unbalanced schedule of nine games for each league team, the Gophers only travel to a nonconference opponent in alternate years when they have five home league games (in 2022 they have four).

Financially important, too, is Minnesota can pay revenue-hungry programs like New Mexico State and Western Illinois modest guarantees compared with what the Gophers would shell out to host powerhouses Alabama, Clemson, Georgia or LSU. Minnesota has never played any of those teams in Minneapolis. Notre Dame was last here in 1937, Texas in 1936.

P.J. Fleck

But while nothing is on the horizon for scheduling marquee opponents, that’s not to say it’s out of the question.  Schedules can change on short notice. If Fleck’s program continues to progress the Gophers will command more of a presence on the national stage. That could lead to a high profile nonleague game arranged in the next several years, not 15 or 20 years out.

How? Well, possibly a home-and-home series where the Gophers are sure of a sellout at the Bank and scale the ticket pricing as if it is a Justin Bieber concert.

Another possibility could be the Gophers, if they reach elite status, will draw an invite to a kickoff classic in Dallas or Atlanta where they face a formidable SEC or ACC team. If you’re willing to think way out of the box, how about Minneapolis hosting such a game at U.S. Bank Stadium. The Mill City Classic?

Worth Noting

Since Fleck started his career at Minnesota in 2017 only Alabama at 23-1, Georgia, 22-1 and Oklahoma State 19-1 have better nonconference records than he does at 16-1.

If the Gophers defeat Michigan State September 24 on the road they will receive the attention of national media. Today The Athletic ranks Minnesota No. 43 in the country with West Division rivals Wisconsin No. 35 and Purdue No. 37. The Badgers are the highest ranked of the seven division teams with Iowa No. 48, Illinois No. 58, Northwestern No. 71 and Nebraska No. 81.

Colorado coach Karl Dorrell is on the hot seat, with a 0-2 record and coming off last season’s 4-8. If he is fired Illinois defensive coordinator Ryan Walters, a former Colorado player, could be a target.

Among the benefits of Minnesota’s lopsided 62-10 win over Western Illinois, is the Gophers were able to use so many reserves including senior redshirt running back Preston Jelen from Lakeville. He scored his first Gopher TD on a 30-yard run.

Jelen plans to become an orthopedic doctor. Fleck, a former college and pro player, figures a day will come when he needs shoulder and knee surgeries. “I said put me down for four surgeries…,” Fleck said Monday.

Fleck liked watching four reserves on his defensive line in the second half last Saturday–Deven Eastern, Logan Richter, Anthony Smith and Hayden Schwartz. “I mean that was a good-looking D-line that’s going to be around for a long time,” Fleck said.

Richter is a redshirt junior, Eastern a redshirt freshman, and Smith and Schwartz true freshmen.

The Gophers shut out New Mexico State and held Western Illinois to 10 points. Last year Minnesota was No. 3 in the country in total defense, allowing 278.8 yards per game. “In this league (the Big Ten) you gotta play incredible defense,” said Fleck who refers to defensive coordinator Joe Rossi as a “stud.”

Gophers’ kickoff specialist Dragan Kesich has booted 15 touchbacks in 17 attempts in the first two games. “He’s very talented,” Fleck said. “He kicked one off his toe, and he miss hit it badly, and he kicked it to the six-yard line. I mean I would have prayed for the six-yard line a few years ago.”

The Vikings’ Justin Jefferson, who had 184 yards in receptions in Sunday’s win over the Packers, is keeping good company at the start of his third NFL season. Jefferson’s fifth career game with at least 150 receiving yards and a touchdown reception tied him with Hall of Famer Randy Moss and Victor Cruz for the second-most by a player in his first three NFL seasons. Only Lance Alworth, another Hall of Famer, has done better with six.

Among anniversaries noted by the NFL is 130 years ago Minneapolis-born William “Pudge” Heffelfinger became the first pro football player in 1892. Following a playing career at Yale, Heffelfinger was the first football player to receive a paycheck as a pro.

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David Shama

David Shama is a former sports editor and columnist with local publications. His writing and reporting experiences include covering the Minnesota Vikings, Minnesota Twins, Minnesota Timberwolves and Minnesota Gophers. Shama’s career experiences also include sports marketing. He is the former Marketing Director of the Minnesota North Stars of the NHL. He is also the former Marketing Director of the United States Tennis Association’s Northern Section. A native of Minneapolis, Shama has been part of the community his entire life. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota where he majored in journalism. He also has a Master’s degree in education from the University of St. Thomas. He was a member of the Governor’s NBA’s Task Force to help create interest in bringing pro basketball to town in the 1980s.

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