College football: When will Fleck’s Gophers appear in the College Football Playoff rankings?
The first College Football Playoff ranking was unveiled Tuesday night. The absence of the Gophers, of course, won’t be trending or a talking point.
While Minnesota held the 25th and final spot for a few weeks on committee’s first ranking in 2014, they haven’t appeared since. That won’t change as coach P.J. Fleck’s first Gophers team has lost four of five games in Big Ten play to fall to 4-4 overall.
But when could it happen?
After the 17-10 loss to Iowa on Saturday, Fleck shared the pain of losing his first rivalry game while sitting in front of a blue wall in the bowels of Kinnick Stadium. A more-fitting backdrop would have been a TV green screen where he could have outlined his forecast like a meteorologist.
“I think there are a ton of signs when you look at this game and you look at the last few games, and you look at where we are headed and what we have, the future is incredibly bright,” Fleck said.
That doesn’t mean ideal days are on the outlook for next season. Minnesota is expected to be younger in 2018, with a thin junior class becoming seniors, and an incoming freshman class containing some players able to take the field right away. Fleck will be looking to further address the lack of depth, primarily on the lines and in the defensive backfield, in the 2018 and 2019 recruiting classes.
“By ’19, I will be able to fix the issues, but we will be young,” Fleck said Monday. “We will be older with some youth, developing depth, creating depth. Then when you hit ’20, that’s when you see a spike in, ‘Holy cow, they’re good. They’re deep, and they are becoming experienced. Wow.’ Then ’21, it’s, ‘Oh my gosh.’ Then you start reloading instead of rebuilding.”
So, barring an unexpected spike like Iowa State this year-- which has pulled off stunning upsets and will be ranked -- Fleck pegs success for years 4 and 5 of his five-year contract.
The current freshmen in the 2017 class scrimmage on Sunday nights. A handful are increasingly strong candidates to play next season, including receiver Chris Autman-Bell, quarterback Tanner Morgan and defensive end Esezi Otomewo, a player Fleck called “a freak.”
″(Autman-Bell) had over 100 yards last night and six catches,” Fleck said. “It’s watching Tanner Morgan develop as a quarterback. It’s watching (offensive tackle) Blaise Andries get stronger and develop and gain weight. It’s those things that you start to see, and it’s, ‘Wow! If I can take this and add it to this, my goodness, here we go.’ But it doesn’t help us today.”
While Fleck plans for the future, he’s focused on the present and winning two of the remaining four games to go to a bowl game.
“These seniors deserve to win,” Fleck said. “These seniors deserve to continue to be able to get everything out of everybody on this football team. That is my challenge, to bring everybody up to that level. ... You are fighting for bowl eligibility, you are fighting for the seniors to end on the high notes, you are fighting with rivalry games. There is a lot to play for.”
Part of the reason for his optimism is the near misses the Gophers have had this year.
“We are one possession, one play, one throw, one something away from being 7-1, and as good as we’ve played and as bad as we’ve played, (we’re) right there,” Fleck said.
The Gophers have 12 giveaways this season, with seven coming in the opponents’ red zone or just outside. Those errors have been backbreakers playing a factor in their .500 record.
“That’s what I mean how close we are, but how far away we are, too,” Fleck said. “That’s what really elite teams do. If you turn the ball over in critical areas of the field, you diminish your chances of winning. We call that the story-changers. We’ve had more negative story-changers than winning football teams do, and that’s what’s killed us.”