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Wisconsin football 2020 opponent preview: Minnesota Golden Gophers

It’s time to discuss the ground squirrels, and what they return in 2020.

Penn State v Minnesota Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

While the Big Ten football season should be a month old by now, we are still stuck in neutral waiting to kickoff. The Wisconsin Badgers and the rest of the conference don’t get going until October 24, but we can’t really wait that long to start talking about football. It is time to start previewing Wisconsin’s opponents now!

The Badgers will play eight games in the regular season, all six division opponents and two cross-division opponents, and then a ninth game on B1G Championship Sunday against their place-doppelgänger from the East.

Next up in the series is the Badgers biggest rival, the Golden Gophers of Minnesota.

Team name: Minnesota Golden Gophers

Location, stadium: TCF Bank Stadium, Minneapolis, Minn.

Head coach (years with team): P.J. Fleck (three years)

Coordinators (years with team): Mike Sanford Jr. (first year offensive coordinator), Joe Harasymiak (first year co-defensive coordinator), Joe Rossi (second year co-defensive coordinator)

2019 record, place in division: 11-2 (7-2 in Big Ten), No. 2 in West

2019 result vs. Wisconsin: L (17-38)

2020 game date vs. Wisconsin: Saturday, November 28th, Camp Randall Stadium, Madison

Outback Bowl - Minnesota v Auburn Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Three key departing players: FS Antoine Winfield Jr. (88 tackles, seven interceptions in 2019), WR Tyler Johnson (86 receptions, 1,318 yards, eight touchdowns), DE Carter Coughlin (9.5 tackles, 4.5 sacks)

Three key returning players: QB Tanner Morgan (3,253 yards, 30 touchdowns, seven interceptions), WR Rashod Bateman (1,219 yards, 11 touchdowns), RB Mohamed Ibrahim (604 yards, seven touchdowns)

Overview of team: Minnesota comes into the 2020 season with some big losses, but also some big returnees in comparison to other teams across the conference. Gone is offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca, leading receiver Tyler Johnson, and leading rusher Rodney Smith. On the other side of the ball Carter Coughlin is gone as is leading tackler Antoine Winfield Jr. Despite the losses, Minnesota feels they have a squad that can compete for the West division title once again.

Leading the way in positives is the return of Rashod Bateman who recently was announced eligible by the NCAA for the 2020 season after opting out originally. That should help quarterback Tanner Morgan continue a connection that saw the duo hook up for 1,318 yards a season ago. Building on those two solid pieces is a strong runner in Mohamed Ibrahim in the backfield, and an offensive line that returns all five starters from a season ago.

Overall the main question for Minnesota on the offensive side of the ball is not really who will perform, but rather how they will perform. They have proven names, now it is time to see some players take on bigger roles. The biggest question mark appears to be which receiver will help take some pressure off of Bateman as he will not have Tyler Johnson to assist. If they can find someone to do that, the Gophers should return one of the conferences top offenses once again.

NCAA Football: Maryland at Minnesota Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

More question marks sit on the defensive side of the football as the Gophers lose five of their top six tacklers from a season ago. Up front appears to be the biggest challenge as the Gophers return one starter to the defensive line in Micah Dew-Treadway. The linebacker position only returns one starter as well, but the secondary returns three of their five players on the back end. Each player has played a lot of football and will have to make up for the production that Winfield brought in 2019.

GoAUpher of The Daily Gopher notes:

The bigger questions probably lie on the defensive side of the ball. As noted, the team’s all-everything defensive leader (Winfield) is gone. So is Carter Coughlin, who proved to be extremely disruptive as a pass rusher last season despite drawing double teams and holds all season long. The defensive line lost two other solid starters in Winston DeLattiboudere and Sam Renner. Linebacker depth is a concern following the loss of Kamal Martin to the NFL and Braelen Oliver to a spring practice injury that should keep him out most (I’d argue all) of 2020. The secondary has a strong pair of corners in Durr and St. Juste, but safety will remain a question mark until someone proves they can adequately replace Winfield.

Overall the Gophers should be a team that contends with the Big Ten West in 2020. The offense has many key pieces back, and if they can find another producer at wideout and click with a new offensive coordinator the Gophers will continue their output on offense. Defensively they’ll need a lot of new faces to step up, so we’ll see how recruitment under PJ Fleck has developed as he enters year three in Minneapolis.