Just about every aspect of this Gophers football season will be atypical.
Saturdays at TCF Bank Stadium will be quiet with few fans in the stands. Starting the season Oct. 24 and playing straight into December could mean more backdrops of snow than fall colors. It’s even possible starting units could change from one game to the next, should any coronavirus outbreaks cause players to sit out the mandatory 21 days.
All those realities of playing during the coronavirus pandemic make this upcoming schedule unfamiliar. And because it doesn’t resemble the usual, some might be tempted to view this season as something less.
But not P.J. Fleck.
“Of course it’s a real season,” the Gophers coach said. “Any time you play college football, any time you play on Saturday, any time you practice, it’s real.”
So the Gophers will kick off against Michigan in two weeks, hoping to claim the Big Ten West title that just barely eluded them last season. If it happens, they won’t attach an asterisk. But their challenges will be different, playing nine games to last season’s 12 and facing road opponents such as Wisconsin and Nebraska without fans in attendance.
Last season, the Gophers went 11-2, falling just shy of a berth to the Big Ten Championship Game but prevailing against Auburn in the Outback Bowl. Minnesota heads into a new season as a West Division title contender, with nearly the entire starting offense returning, including all-conference quarterback Tanner Morgan and Big Ten Receiver of the Year Rashod Bateman, who is back after opting out.
The Gophers are clearly a team on the rise in Fleck’s fourth season, which would make them easier to discredit this year. Former Gophers receiver Ron Johnson said if the favorite, Ohio State, wins again, no one will question if this season meant the same as prior years. But if an underdog comes through, then people will wonder if the wonkiness outweighed the validity.
“Well if [the Gophers] win … it’s going to be an asterisk from Badgers fans, I’ll tell you that,” Johnson said. “They’re going to be mad. The Hawkeyes fans are going to be mad.”
Johnson won’t, though, because he feels every team will deal with the same conditions, so the playing field is level. Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo said this season isn’t phony, it’s just unique. And it actually might produce an even worthier champ.
“Under the present circumstances, that was the best team in 2020,” DiNardo said. “ … I would be more likely to say this team achieved more than a team that has won the championship under normal circumstances. There’s just too much to overcome.
“There’s a lot more reasons to say a tremendous amount of credit will go to whoever plays the best this year.”
For example, players and coaches have had far less hands-on preparation for this season because the pandemic shut down spring practices after a week and kept summer activities to mostly weightlifting and walk-throughs. There was no dedicated training camp time without school going on as well. And while the team is probably well-versed in schemes and film study, the actual blocking and tackling work has been minimal.
In addition, there’s no nonconference games anymore for the team to work out the kinks and gel. Those three games to start the season last year were imperative for the Gophers.
‘Going to need the entire team’
Games with far fewer fans could be good or bad, depending on what side would have benefited from home-field advantage. Current Minnesota Department of Health guidelines limit outdoor stadium crowds to 1,500 — and pods within the venue are limited to 250 people apiece. General fans won’t be allowed into Big Ten games, but the conference does plan to prioritize seating for team families.
Coaches will have to be creative in how to keep the energy level up on the sideline with mostly empty bleachers as witnesses to a big play.
Plus all of the new aspects COVID-19 precautions bring, including daily testing, mask-wearing and social-distancing. A positive test, and 21-day wait, could cost a player three games. Contact-tracing could also shelve players and either postpone games or severely test a team’s depth.
“We’re going to need the entire football team,” Fleck said. “ … The ones and twos might be out, who knows who’s going to be out and what’s going to keep them out? Whether it’s injury, whether that’s COVID, whatever it is, how does that all work, and who’s ready to step in and step up? And I think that’s really exciting. It’s challenging.”
The fact that this season is, in many ways, more demanding than ever before is something many fans have recognized, including Nadine Babu, co-owner of fan site GopherHole.com. No matter if the Gophers or some other team takes the Big Ten title, they will be worthy.
“If you can win during COVID without your fan base, with limited time, with limited preparation,” Babu said, “I feel like it’s an even bigger accomplishment.”