The P.J. Fleck era begins at Minnesota on Thursday when the Golden Gophers open their season with a non-conference contest against visiting Buffalo. Fleck is in his first season as head coach with Minnesota after a successful run at Western Michigan, which included a 13-1 campaign in 2016 that ended in the Cotton Bowl.
The Golden Gophers ended their season in a bowl as well in 2016, defeating Washington State 17-12 in the Holiday Bowl, but it wasn’t enough for the school to keep Tracy Claeys around after his 19 games as head coach. Fleck will be changing the offense quite a bit, including going with “co-starters” at quarterback in senior Conor Rhoda and sophomore Demry Croft. Fleck says the two will split time equally and he won’t make a decision on playing one more than the other until later in the season, if he does at all. Coach Lance Leipold’s squad has struggled defensively in his first two seasons at Buffalo, which is why he’s hoping 6-7 sophomore quarterback Tyree Jackson can build on the promise he showed as a freshman.
TV: 7 p.m. ET. Big Ten Network. LINE: Minnesota -25
ABOUT BUFFALO (2016: 2-10): The Bulls’ defense had problems last season, but the hope is that seven returning starters will make Buffalo a little tougher to move the ball on in 2017. However, defensive coordinator Brian Borland must shore up a run defense which allowed a school-record 253.2 yards per game last season. An experienced and quick linebacking corps, led by middle linebacker Khalil Hodge (seventh in nation in tackles per game with 10.25 last year), could help to stack the line and force teams to beat the Bulls through the air this season.
ABOUT MINNESOTA (2016: 9-4): Fleck has been installing the no-huddle offense that he favored at Western Michigan since he came to Minneapolis, but that doesn’t mean that the Golden Gophers are going to be passing most of the time. Last season’s Western Michigan offense, which averaged 41.6 points, rushed the ball 45 times a game compared to 27 passes. Throw in the fact that Minnesota has juniors Rodney Smith (1,158 yards, 16 TDs) and Shannon Brooks (650, five) in the backfield, and it stands to reason that the Gophers will look to punish teams with the ground attack.
1. Senior LB Jonathan Celestin is the leading returning tackler for Minnesota, having racked up 80 stops a season ago.
2. The Golden Gophers are one of the youngest teams in the nation, with 50 of their 112 players (44.6 percent) being freshmen or redshirt freshmen.
3. Minnesota first-year coaches are 19-9-1 in their debuts with the Golden Gophers, though the six most recent head coaches all lost their first game.
PREDICTION: Minnesota 45, Buffalo 14