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The Gophers open their season next week against South Dakota State, and so far none of the national media experts favor the Gophers to do anything in the Big Ten this year.

But if there’s one person who does believe in this Gophers team it is head coach P.J. Fleck.

“I am not sure what the experts are saying,” Fleck said. “The experts are truly the people inside our program because they’re the ones who actually know what’s going on all the time. But I know this, this team works really hard, they’re a lot of fun to coach and they’re getting better every day.”

When you look across the country, the Big Ten media picked them to finish sixth in the West behind Nebraska, Iowa, Wisconsin, Northwestern and Purdue.

Athlon Sports picked them fifth in the Big Ten West behind Iowa, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Northwestern.

USA Today had them ranked eighth in the Big Ten.

On top of that, they didn’t appear in hardly any preseason Top 25 polls, despite finishing 7-6 last season and winning three of their final four games and outscoring their opponents 126-59 in that stretch with wins over Purdue, Wisconsin and Georgia Tech.

And the fact that the Gophers don’t have to face Michigan, Michigan State or Ohio State this season still isn’t bolstering the national press’ belief in the Gophers.

While there’s no doubt they have some very tough opponents, they also get to play Nebraska, Penn State and Wisconsin at home.

For Fleck, losing quarterback Zack Annexstad to a season ending foot injury before the season got underway was a big loss, but it also means that there is no question about who is going to be the No. 1 quarterback.

Tanner [Morgan] is going to be No. 1 and then Jacob Clark and Cole Kramer will be fighting for that two and three position,” Fleck said. “Seth [Green] has a big role playing wide receiver, a little bit of tight end, he has [played] quarterback in the Wildcat, things like that. He has a lot on his plate. But we feel very confident to put Seth in the game at any particular time.

“[Redshirt sophomore] Jonathan Santaga is another young man who has emerged in the quarterback room to give us a little bit more of that running back/quarterback type feel. I feel really good about where we’re at.”

Young, experienced

And while the Gophers were one of the youngest teams in the nation last season, this year isn’t going to be too different because they only field 15 seniors.

But Fleck said this year is night and day from last year in terms of the experience of his players.

“The first two years, especially when you become the youngest team in America your second year, you’re still learning,” he said. “Now we’re in the stage of mastering, teaching, capturing, developing within, words like that. I think that is the difference from this year and last year.”

Does he feel like the team is more confident?

“We finished where we were last year at 7-6, bowl champions, beat Wisconsin and all those things, but that has nothing to do with this year,” he said.

“This is a new year, new team, new identity. I know this team wants to make their own legacy.”

Replacing veterans

One area where the Gophers lost veteran standouts was at linebacker, where Blake Cashman and Julian Huff graduated.

Fleck said replacing those players has been a big challenge.

“Well we have to have guys step in and step up, guys like [linebackers] Thomas Rush and Mariano Sori-Marin and Braelen Oliver, they really need to step in and step up,” he said. “The young guys like Donald Willis and D.J. Gordon have to come out and play well, Josh Aune at the linebacker position. Those young guys have to be able to develop pretty quick, which that’s what we’re working on.

And while Fleck is excited about this team and the direction the Gophers are headed, he knows the university has to find ways to get people into the stands.

“We have some of the best fans in America, we really do, some of the most loyal fans,” he said. “I know our fans support us 100 percent.”

The athletic department put a big push down this week with a 24-hour sale for tickets to the home opener going for just $10.

Vikings’ Jones is No. 1

An interesting note out of Pro Football Focus is that through two weeks of the preseason, Vikings backup center Brett Jones ranks as the No. 1 offensive lineman in all of the NFL with a grade of 91.5.

The website noted that: “Jones’ 91.5 overall grade has to look wholly unfamiliar for Vikings fans. This is an interior offensive line that was among the bottom-five in our grading system in all the NFL last year.’’

Jones looks like he wants the Vikings to not forget about him after they drafted Garrett Bradbury in the first round. The veteran center hasn’t allowed a single pressure on 44 pass-blocking snaps through two games.

Jones, who made $2.9 million last season and then signed a one-year, $720,000 deal for this season, will at the very least provide some real depth on the line in case of any injuries.

Twins defensive woes

One thing that is being overlooked about the Twins is how terrible their defense has been this season.

They’re tied for 21st in MLB with five teams in fielding percentage (.981) while their chief AL Central competition, the Indians, rank 11th (.985).

On top of that the Twins have committed the fifth-most errors in baseball (90). Most of them have been by three infielders: Jorge Polanco (17), Miguel Sano (15), and Jonathan Schoop (12) have combined to make 44 errors.

Polanco has made the second-most errors among shortstops in the American League, trailing only Tim Anderson of the White Sox.

Compare that with Cleveland shortstop Francisco Lindor, who is one of the best in the game and has just seven errors on the season.

Among qualified shortstops this season, Lindor ranks second in the American League in fielding percentage (.981) while Polanco ranks eighth (.959).

Another stat that jumps out is that the club has 13 passed balls this season, which ranks tied for the fourth most in baseball while Cleveland has just one passed ball all season, the best mark in the majors.

There’s no doubt the defense needs to get better if they’re going to keep their division lead.

Sid Hartman can be heard on WCCO AM-830 at 8:40 a.m. Monday and Friday, 2 p.m. Friday and 10 a.m. Sunday. • shartman@startribune.com