In the up and down life and career of Ryan Leaf, there have been greater claims to fame, but make no mistake the former Washington State star quarterback and No. 2 overall NFL pick turned ESPN analyst is pretty proud to say this: “I was the first one on the boat.”
Indeed, it was July 29 when Leaf released several college football predictions on Twitter. One of them had the Gophers winning the Big Ten West.
“When I got the job at ESPN, my bosses asked me to throw my hat in the ring and throw out some predictions around the country,” Leaf said in a phone interview this week. “So I published it and people laughed at me.”
Nobody is laughing now – not with the Gophers sitting at 8-0, including 5-0 in the Big Ten with a two-game lead in the Big Ten West heading into a huge November stretch that includes a showdown in two weeks with undefeated Penn State.
Perhaps only Gophers coach P.J. Fleck himself, with his “Row the Boat” mantra, was an earlier adopter when it came to Minnesota’s potential this season. But Leaf, who also put the Gophers in his preseason top 25 when such a thing seemed bold, says his prediction was based on studying and logic.
“I just started going through everyone’s schedule. When I got to Minnesota’s, I saw they didn’t play crossover games against Ohio State and Michigan. I saw they had home games against Nebraska, Penn State and Wisconsin,” he said. “I loved how they finished last year and love how P.J. Fleck has gone about (things) there and what he did at Western Michigan.”
Leaf said some of those things and more when he sent a video, at Fleck’s request, to the Gophers before the season started.
“I just said hey, the year we went to the Rose Bowl (after the 1997 season) all the media members picked us to finish seventh out of 10 teams in the Pac-10. We were the only ones who believed in ourselves and we did it,” said Leaf, noting some similarities between the two long-suffering programs and fan bases. Washington State’s Rose Bowl trip was its first in 67 years.
To say thanks, Fleck sent Leaf and his family a bunch of Minnesota gear. When Leaf was a guest host on Rich Eisen’s show a couple weeks ago, he donned a bright gold Gophers shirt and had Fleck on to talk about the team, adding to the connection.
It might seem like a strange kinship, but Leaf said he has a lot of family from Minnesota and that his dad, John, is a longtime diehard fan of the Vikings and Twins.
“So I’ve been rowing the boat for a while,” Leaf said. “But it’s not just a thing to do. I think they’re incredibly capable. They are as big and powerful up front as anybody. They run the ball well. Tanner Morgan does his job at quarterback. This was not some flight of fancy.”
Having helped get the Gophers some early recognition, Leaf is turning to a new lobbying effort: trying to get ESPN’s “College GameDay” to visit Minneapolis for the Penn State game. He vowed to “put some pressure” on his ESPN bosses to skip the No. 1 vs. No. 2 temptation of LSU vs. Alabama in favor of a first-time trip to the Twin Cities.
“Washington State had it for the first time ever last year, and it was one of the best shows they’ve ever had,” Leaf said “I wouldn’t be surprised if the Minnesota faithful showed up in the same way. I think (GameDay) would be doing themselves a disservice if they just went ‘chalk’ and went back to Tuscaloosa.”
After all, TCF Bank Stadium still has a top-10 matchup – at least in Leaf’s latest rankings, where he has Penn State No. 5 and the Gophers No. 8 in the country.
“Their floor is to absolutely fall on their face and finish 8-4,” Leaf said. “But I think they are every bit capable of beating Penn State, Iowa and Northwestern as well as Wisconsin.”