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2023 Know Your Opponent: Minnesota Golden Gophers

The Golden Gophers are looking to make it three straight years with nine wins.

NCAA Football: Pinstripe Bowl-Syracuse vs Minnesota Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Just 10 days to go until Rutgers week, which means 10 more teams for us to break down. Next up on the list is Minnesota, which will be Northwestern’s first home Big Ten opponent this year.

The Basics

Returning Production: 58% (59% offense, 59% defense)

2022 Record: 9-4 (5-4 B1G, Pinstripe Bowl Champions)

Coach: P.J. Fleck

The Stats (via ESPN’s Bill Connelly)

2023 Preseason SP+ Overall: 104th

2023 Preseason SP+ Offense: 95th

2023 Preseason SP+ Defense: 96th

2022 Capsule

After a 9-4 2021 that ended with a three-game winning streak and a victory in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl, P.J. Fleck and Minnesota looked to continue building on that momentum in 2022.

At the start of the season, it certainly looked like that would be the case. The Golden Gophers ran through September like a hot knife through butter, going 4-0 with a total scoreline of 183-24. That stretch culminated in a 34-7 domination of Michigan State, who had gone 11-2 the year before, and saw Minnesota reach a ranking of No. 21 in the AP Poll.

However, that would be the high point of the season for Minnesota. In a 20-10 loss to Purdue on Oct. 1, sixth-year quarterback Tanner Morgan threw a trio of interceptions and no touchdowns. Two weeks later against Illinois, Morgan was injured on a fourth quarter run, forcing untested freshman Athan Kaliakmanis into action. Kaliakmanis went 2-for-6 to close out the loss, then went 9-for-22 in a 28-point blowout at the hands of Penn State.

Morgan returned for a shutout victory over Rutgers, snapping a three-game losing streak. However, he was relieved by Kaliakmanis after being injured again in the first half against Nebraska, a game that the Golden Gophers would come back to win. With Kaliakmanis at the reins, Minnesota flattened Northwestern 31-3, then took a tough last-second loss to Iowa.

Kaliakmanis bounced back nicely in the season finale against Wisconsin, completing 19-for-29 passes with a pair of touchdowns, setting career highs in all three marks. Against Syracuse in their bowl game, Kaliakmanis got the start and played most of the first half, then got injured himself. That gave way to Morgan, who threw a pair of touchdowns in the victory.

At the close of the season, it became obvious that Minnesota’s place in the college football hierarchy was right about where it should be. While the Golden Gophers were receiving 50 or more votes in both the AP and Coaches Polls, their offensive inconsistency doomed them to a spot in the “receiving votes” only club. Running back Mohamed Ibrahim and center John Michael Schmitz both made the All-Big Ten First Team, but the chaotic revolving door at quarterback probably capped the team’s ceiling to be just outside of the top 25.

Offensive Overview

Speaking of Ibrahim and Schmitz, both of them are now gone, with Schmitz taken in the second round of the NFL Draft by the New York Giants and Ibrahim joining the Detroit Lions as an undrafted free agent. Morgan, the program record-holder for passing yards, touchdowns, and completion percentage in a season, as well as games won by a quarterback, is also gone. However, the offense, which put up over 28 points per game last year, should be able to keep its production level at or near last year’s.

The reason for that is the experience level catching the ball. Chris Autman-Bell, who made All-Big Ten honorable mention at receiver in 2021, missed most of last season with an injury, but is back for one last ride. Brevyn Spann-Ford, who led the team in receptions from his tight end spot, is also back for his final season. Daniel Jackson, who led the team in receiving yards and touchdowns last year despite missing two games, will also be a player to watch.

However, the key to this year will be whoever is standing in the backfield. Kaliakmanis, who finished last season with a 54% completion percentage and three touchdowns against four interceptions, will probably need a dependable run game as the year begins to get his feet under him. Sean Tyler, a graduate transfer from Western Michigan who rushed for over 1000 yards last year, will help with that. Trey Potts, who rushed for 471 yards last season in a backup role, will also see a decent amount of action.

Defensive Overview

The defense also lost a lot of production, even if the producers were slightly lesser-known than their offensive counterparts. Mariano Sori-Marin, who led the team in tackles last year, is gone, as is Jordan Howden, who finished third on the team in tackles while adding a pair of interceptions and five pass breakups. Terell Smith put up those same numbers in pass coverage while also adding 4.5 tackles for loss, further depleting secondary depth.

Despite those departures, it’s not all doom and gloom for the Golden Gophers. Danny Striggow, the team’s sack leader last year, is back to help shore up a defensive line that kept most of its key contributors. Cody Lindenberg, who was Honorable Mention All-Big Ten last year, also returned, a major blessing for a linebacker group trying to replace Sori-Marin’s production.

The key to the defense, though, will be Tyler Nubin. The fifth-year senior made second team All-Big Ten last season after tallying 55 tackles, four interceptions, and three pass breakups, and he’s back for more this year. He's one of just six players in the Minnesota secondary with more than three years of collegiate experience, and the only one to do so without either redshirting or transferring in. Alongside Justin Walley, Nubin is the only returning starter in the defensive backfield, and he will be the leader of the defense this year.

Three Players to Know

WR Chris Autman-Bell

Autman-Bell is probably the best receiving talent the Golden Gophers have, and arguably has been for the past three seasons. He finished second on the team in receiving yards in 2020, then led the team in 2021 with 506. He was on pace to do so yet again last season, but suffered a season-ending injury in the Colorado victory.

Autman-Bell made his mark in all three games he played in, garnering at least three catches in each. He was especially dangerous in the Western Illinois victory, grabbing five passes for a season-high 118 yards. Against Colorado, he hauled in his only touchdown of the year from 39 yards out. He’s proven his worth as a deep threat ever since 2020, when he took four receptions against Maryland for 112 total yards.

With Ibrahim gone (and assuming health), Autman-Bell is the biggest playmaking threat on this Minnesota roster. He's already ninth all-time on Minnesota leaderboards with 1,970 career receiving yards, and will almost certainly crack the top 10 in receptions and receiving touchdowns this year. He’s also made a catch in an astounding 41 straight games. In short, defensive backs like Coco Azema and Rod Heard II will have their hands full with Autman-Bell all game long.

OT Quinn Carroll

After three seasons at Notre Dame that included 12 games in 2021, the Edina, Minnesota native returned back home for his final few years of college football. Standing at 6-foot-7 and 315 pounds, Carroll started all 13 games at right tackle last year for the Golden Gophers. His play was instrumental for a Minnesota offense that finished 16th in the nation in rushing yards last season.

Carroll was also a major factor in the passing game. Despite all the chaos and injuries in the quarterback room, the pocket remained clean all year long. Minnesota allowed just 1.15 sacks per game last year, 18th in the nation and second in the Big Ten behind only Ohio State. The team also gave up just 57 tackles for loss last year, good for a tie for 20th nationwide.

With John Michael Schmitz no longer snapping the ball, it’s unlikely Minnesota’s offensive line will be as good as last year’s, at least right away. However, it’s quite possible Carroll could lead a devastating rushing attack against the Wildcats. Not a single Northwestern defensive lineman weighs more than him, and only one (Carmine Bastone) comes within 15 pounds. If Northwestern defenders see No. 77 coming at them on September 23, they better be ready.

DB Tyler Nubin

The versatile defensive back is arguably the Golden Gophers’ best defensive player, and if not, he’s at least their best turnover guy. Nubin picked off four passes last year to lead the team, and he also forced a fumble. When he’s not forcing turnovers, he’s making life miserable for offenses in other ways, as his 55 tackles and three pass breakups can attest to that.

Minnesota’s secondary picked off 15 passes last year, a mark that tied for 14th in the country. They also gave up just eight passing touchdowns all year, which means that yes, quarterbacks playing against Minnesota last season nearly put up two interceptions for every touchdown they threw. Nubin was a major factor in establishing that no fly zone, and the end result was a defense that was seventh nationally in passing efficiency allowed.

Against Northwestern, Nubin was all over the field. He finished in a tie for second on the team with five tackles, helping hold the Wildcats to 3-of-12 on third down. He also picked off Ryan Hilinski’s last pass of the day, helping set up a field goal early in the third quarter. Whether it’s Hilinski or someone else, like Ben Bryant, throwing the ball this year, they’ll have to make sure they know where Nubin is — and that he isn’t where they’re throwing it.