The Minnesota Golden Gopher Football Team just posted its best winning percentage since the 2003 season. Most of the time, that would lead to an extension of the current staffs contracts. The 2016 season, however, was not a typical season. A slew of off-field incidents, a player boycott, and multiple second half collapses cast a shadow on the season. The entire coaching staff was let go at the end of the season, ushering in the P.J. Fleck era.
Looking at the severity of the off-field problems, the dismal recruiting class, and general lack of excitement around the program, I am neither surprised nor disappointed that a change was made. We will never know where Jerry Kill could have taken this program, but it is clear, to me, that the program was stagnating with a drop on the horizon.
While that is my feeling, I wanted to make sure that it wasn’t a purely emotional reaction to the difficulties surrounding the 2016 season and dove down the S&P+ rabbit hole.
To give some context, I dove back to the 2005 season (the earliest season with S&P+ ratings). The data captures the final two years of the Mason era, the next 4 seasons, and all of Kill/Claeys. I also included FEI and F/+ (Combined S&P+ and FEI rating) to get a more complete picture.
The job that Jerry Kill did to climb out of that hole and back into respectability can not be understated. It is a shame that we will never get to see if he could have taken this team to Indianapolis and further. What is clear to me is that the program had stalled after Kill had stepped down.
Lack of discipline both on and off the field become more common after 4 years of relatively few issues. Recruiting had plateaued and another brutal loss at home to Michigan seemed to suck the life out of the fan base. Second half melt downs became more common in 2016 and the team still could not hang with Wisconsin for more than two and a half quarters.
The offense was, well, offensive for much of the Kill/Claeys era. Aside from a strong 2014 (Sup Maxx Williams and David Cobb) and a better than average 2015, the Gophers couldn’t throw worth a damn and were mediocre at best on the ground. The offense had little big play threat and wasn’t nearly efficient enough to ground and pound with the top teams. The failure to recruit and develop a game breaker at quarterback or more than one receiving threat per season is probably the biggest indictment on this era.
Tracy Claeys did hire his own Offensive Staff for the 2016 season, but the offense fell back in the run game thanks to a Shannon Brooks nagging injury, and in the passing game. When Mitch Leidner had time to get off a pass, it was either off target or bouncing out of his receivers hands. When he didn’t have time, he was getting rocked in the pocket. The passing game never found a rhythm and highly touted wide receiver recruits were curiously kept off of the field.
The defense was the best in recent memory for Minnesota fans. The sharp rise was starting to taper off by the end as the team settled in as a top 25-30 unit. The passing D was very good for much of the 6 season and did a good job of preventing the big play. Claeys’ defenses were very good at bend-don’t-break until the 2016 season. The defenses morphed into a hold and then break catastrophically at the worst time. A lot of that is due to multiple games missed in the secondary due to suspensions from off field incidents and targeting penalties.
The discipline that had been a trademark of the Kill era walked out the door when he did. What’s worse, it didn’t seem as if the coaches changed any of their teaching as the targeting penalties were an issue all season long. That said, the unit still rated out as the best in the last decade plus.
The rushing defense was much better this year than it had been in the past thanks to strong linebacker play and human bowling ball/defensive tackle Steven Richardson. Richardson is one of the few recruits that panned out on the defensive line. The lack of quality D-line depth was costly in late season B1G games.
I believe that Claeys could have maintained this level of play on defense going forward, but I don’t think he could have improved it without really hitting the recruiting trail hard.
Strength of Schedule
How could you possibly fire a coach after the best 4-year stretch in conference play since leaving Memorial Stadium and the best season in 13 years? That’s a great question! The Gophers were terrible to mediocre at best in the seasons prior to Kill’s arrival. Kill and Company followed Mason’s blueprint of beating mostly bad teams and losing to the quality teams on the schedule. The Gophers were a combined 7-30 against teams finishing in the S&P+ top 50 at the end of the season and 33-7 against the rest.
This is the very definition of a Fringe Bowl Team (RIP MVofDT). In 2016, the schedule was set up to win the division. Minnesota avoided Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State and had a redshirt Senior quarterback returning for his third full season at the helm. Squandering that opportunity with 4 second half collapses and closer than expected wins against Oregon State, Colorado State, and Rutgers (especially Rutgers) was hard to stomach.
Jerry Kill returned Minnesota to respectability in his four and half years as Head Coach. Tracy Claeys didn’t crash and burn, but he didn’t bring the program to the next step. Perhaps with more experience, he would have handled the off-field issues and late game clock management better, but the Big Ten is not the conference to learn those lessons.
Minnesota fans are anxious to lose what have been the best Gopher defenses in the last 35+ years. While I am a bit worried, it is interesting to note that Mason’s high powered offenses with poor defenses are considered better teams than the best teams that Kill fielded.
Jerry Kill’s legacy at Minnesota will be that of a good coach who took a bad team, both on and off the field, and turned it into a respectable Power Five program. For that, Minnesota fans will always be grateful. He is not, however, the savior of the program. Zero wins against Ohio State or Wisconsin, no division titles, and a .400 conference record mean he won’t be put up on the Mt. Rushmore of Gopher coaches.
That said, Jerry and Tracy laid a solid foundation for P.J. Fleck to build off of. Only time will tell if he can maintain the current level of defensive play and find his next Zach Terrell and Corey Davis to propel the offense, and the team, to the top of the Big Ten West.