"Comparisons," Gophers coach P.J. Fleck has been known to say, "steal your joy."
For fans and media members, however, comparisons are as essential as oxygen because of the speculative nature of their roles. Which team is better? Who'll win the division?
And with the Gophers off to a 4-0 start and ranked No. 21 in the AP poll entering Saturday's homecoming game against Purdue, a common question has popped up this week:
Are the Gophers having another season like 2019?
That team went 11-2, upset No. 4 Penn State and beat No. 9 Auburn in the Outback Bowl. Losses to Iowa and Wisconsin kept the Gophers from advancing to the Big Ten Championship Game, but they finished No. 10 in both major polls, posting their most wins in a season since 1904 and their best final ranking since 1962.
Fleck tries to keep his team focused on the "one-game championship season" each week, and said, "We need the internal message to be way louder" than the outside noise.
But through four games, there are intriguing similarities between the 2022 and 2019 teams.
Both the 2019 and 2022 teams went 3-0 in nonconference play, but in vastly different ways. While the 2022 Gophers rolled over New Mexico State, Western Illinois and Colorado by a combined 149-17, the 2019 team needed three great escapes to edge South Dakota State, Fresno State and Georgia Southern.
In 2019, the Gophers won six consecutive Big Ten games before falling 23-19 at Iowa, beating Northwestern the following week and losing 38-17 to Wisconsin. That last one was a de facto West Division title game with ESPN's "College GameDay" on Minnesota's campus for the first time.
This year, Purdue visits for homecoming, followed by trips to Illinois and Penn State. The final two weekends, vs. Iowa and at Wisconsin, could determine if the Gophers end up in Indianapolis for the conference title game.
With key players such as quarterback Tanner Morgan and running back Mohamed Ibrahim from 2019 still on this year's team, Fleck acknowledged that experience is valuable.
"It doesn't guarantee you anything, but it definitely helps," Fleck said during his weekly radio show on KFXN-FM. "We've got a lot of guys who were with us in 2019 when we were having a really good year."
Same as the old boss
In 2019, Morgan as a third-year sophomore passed for 3,253 yards and 30 touchdowns, both school records, while ranking fourth nationally in quarterback ranking (178.70). Having NFL-caliber wide receivers in Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman certainly helped.
This year, Morgan is a sixth-year senior and ranks fourth nationally in QB rating (198.14). His offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, Kirk Ciarrocca, didn't hesitate in saying which version is better.
"He's just a better player," said Ciarrocca, who left the program after the 2019 season but returned last December. "I recognized that as soon as I got here, watching him in bowl prep. He's had more experiences, and everybody learns best through their experiences."
After two lackluster seasons with Mike Sanford Jr. as coordinator, Morgan has excelled since the reunion with Ciarrocca. He's completed 77.2% of his passes for 886 yards and seven TDs with one interception. Against Michigan State in the first game without injured receiver Chris Autman-Bell, Morgan spread the ball among 10 pass-catchers.
"He works so dad-gum hard at his craft," Ciarrocca said.
In 2019, the Gophers running game featured Rodney Smith rushing for 1,163 yards, and Ibrahim (604) and Shannon Brooks (408) in complementary roles. This year, Ibrahim is getting the bulk of the carries and has rushed for 567 yards and eight TDs. The 2020 Big Ten Running Back of the Year has been mentioned as a dark-horse candidate for the Heisman Trophy.
The 2019 Gophers had an offensive line that returned most of its starters. Center John Michael Schmitz broke into that lineup and now is among the best in the nation at his position. He is the lone returning starter on the line this year, but the group hasn't missed a beat.
"John Michael Schmitz came back to connect all of them," Fleck said. "He is one of the best leaders I've ever been around."
A smart defense
Minnesota's 2019 defense included future NFL players like Antoine Winfield Jr., Carter Coughlin, Kamal Martin and Benjamin St-Juste. This year, the defense is a balanced group that might not have star power but wins with depth. The Gophers lead the nation in total defense (187.8 yards allowed per game) and rank second in scoring defense (6.0 points allowed per game). The first-team defense has yet to give up a touchdown.
"They're playing together, and they're playing incredibly hard, and they're playing assignment-sound," Fleck said. "Smarter players are better players. We have a really smart defense."