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What to Know for Gophers-Michigan

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October 21, 2020

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It’s no exaggeration to write that Saturday the nation’s college football fans will have eyes focused on Minneapolis, and the Big Ten Conference’s premiere season opening matchup of Minnesota and Michigan.

The hoopla starts at 8 a.m. with ESPN’s GameDay reporting for three hours from inside TCF Bank Stadium.  The weekly program is coveted everywhere by college football pitch artists, and their cities.  The show arrives in Minneapolis this week for the second time ever.  Know that high school players, including recruiting targets of the Gophers, will be watching and listening to what is said.

No inside word yet on who exuberant Lee Corso will pick to win the game, but social media geniuses will be typing at high speed about whoever gets the nod from the former Indiana head coach.  While signaling his prediction, maybe he will slip on a Goldy head and hoist the Little Brown Jug in deference to the Golden Gophers.  Then, again, perhaps he poses in a Desmond Howard mask and strikes a Heisman Trophy pose to predict a Michigan win—making Howard, Corso’s GameDay colleague, giggle about his old school and his Heisman hardware.

Hopefully, the game will be even more entertaining than Corso, GameDay’s undisputed showman.  It should be with two top 25 teams playing in primetime (6:30 p.m. kickoff) on national TV via ABC.  Somewhere near the top of storylines will be the two head coaches, P.J. Fleck of the Gophers, and Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh.

Fleck’s record since November 10, 2018 is 14 wins, 3 losses.  In that stretch his teams have won at Wisconsin, upset No. 4 ranked Penn State at home and taken down No. 12 Auburn in the Outback Bowl.  After the bowl game, Minnesota was ranked No. 10 nationally, the program’s highest poll position since 1962.

P.J. Fleck

But Fleck, starting his fourth season at Minnesota, will be the first to acknowledge success must be sustained year after year, and Project Consistency comes one step at a time.  Another successful season, starting with a win over the Wolverines, will chase more of the anti-Fleck crowd toward the Gopher bandwagon. And a lot of admirers are already more worried about holding on to the 39-year-old Fleck as coach, than fretting over whether the program will be an annual winner.

Harbaugh has a losing record at Michigan against A.P. top-25 teams, 10-14, per Michigan.rivals.com.  Although he is among the best paid coaches in the country at more than $7 million this season, he has yet to defeat hated rival Ohio State in five seasons coaching in Ann Arbor and he is 1-4 in bowl games.

With two seasons remaining on his contract, Harbaugh’s seat will be warm at chilly TCF Bank Stadium Saturday night.  Power Five coaches almost never have just two years left on a contract, so it seems the higher-ups in Ann Arbor are sending a message.

Here are six more things to know about the game:

No. 1. Among the players, who is healthy and available to play?  Testing positive for COVID-19 will likely sideline players for both teams.  Who and how many may determine the game’s outcome.  Subtract too many top playmakers and key defenders, and this game likely doesn’t fulfill its potential to be special.

No. 2. How high will the total points be in the game?  College football scores this fall can resemble low scoring basketball games.  Powerhouse programs like Alabama have even experienced poor defensive outings.  In explaining the offensive fireworks, COVID is again a villain. The pandemic cancelled spring practices and since then has limited teams from having full contact.  The over-under total for Michigan-Minnesota should be about 60 points.

No. 3. Will Minnesota’s defense be a liability?  While the starting offense has nearly everyone returning from 2019, the defense is without several regulars including its best performers.  Defensive coordinator Joe Rossi, though, has shown an unflappable demeanor and golden touch since being elevated to his position after the infamous November 3, 2018 loss at Illinois.

Rossi is kind of starting over now, but not without talent including a pair of the Big Ten’s better cornerbacks in Coney Durr and Benjamin St-Juste, plus exceptionally athletic defensive lineman Boye Mafe, and a “coach on the field” leader in linebacker in Mariano Sori-Marin.

No. 4. Does Rashod Bateman’s presence push the Gophers over the top?  The NCAA has done few favors for the University of Minnesota Athletic Department over the years (see Clem Haskins scandal), but the governing organization granted the return of Bateman, the Gophers’ All-American wide receiver who initially had opted out of the 2020 season.  He is an extraordinary playmaker, and opinion here is his presence could tip one or more games into the win column this fall.  Will that start Saturday night?

No. 5. Is the 2020 game the start of a new age in the Minnesota-Michigan rivalry?  Michigan leads the all-time series by a dominating 70-23-3 total.  Long ago, though, this was a rivalry about Heisman Trophy winners, All-Americans, Big Ten titles and national supremacy.  Since 1970 the ineptitude of Gopher football has mostly made folly of a rivalry that is symbolized by possession of the famed Little Brown Jug.  Minnesota hasn’t defeated the Wolverines in Minneapolis since 1977, although the Gophers have won three times in Ann Arbor since then.

Sadly, the two programs don’t compete against one another every year because they are in different Big Ten divisions.  Minnesota and Michigan last played in 2018 and aren’t scheduled again after Saturday evening until 2023.  There is the possibility of the two schools meeting in the Big Ten championship game as champions of the West and East Divisions.  That would wake up the echoes of a rivalry that once had Gophers fans and players circling the Michigan game before all others on the schedule calendar.

No. 6.  Get ready to cringe every time GameDay and ABC talking heads bring up how cold it is here.  How high can you count?  Some stereotypes don’t go away—like cold weather in Minnesota even in October.  However, Weather.com predicts the evening low Saturday in Ann Arbor will be 35 degrees.  So take that, Minnesota weather bashers.

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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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