MINNEAPOLIS -- P.J. Fleck doesn’t believe in momentum.
It’s not that the Gophers football coach disputes that an object in motion tends to stay in motion; he just doesn’t believe it applies to the success of a sports team. And he especially doesn’t want it applied to his team.
“People get on me all the time about this word ‘momentum,’ ” he said. “I don’t believe in that.”
Minnesota’s season starts Thursday, Aug. 29, against South Dakota State at 8 p.m. at TCF Bank Stadium. Last year’s victory over Wisconsin in Madison, the program’s first since 1994, won’t play a role, Fleck said. Nor will a lopsided Quick Lane Bowl victory over Georgia Tech.
The only carryover Fleck expects to see is from fans.
“I hope that people see that we can. We’ve proven we can do things,” he said. “And people … were just hoping. We had faith. Then all of a sudden you saw some things that maybe haven’t happened here in a long time, or ever. ”
Fleck might not believe physics applies to a team’s success, but he does see something in chemistry. He has made it clear he wants his players to lead from within, and he said throughout this summer that this is the closest team he’s had since arriving in Minnesota in January 2017.
“You don’t have to ask them to pick it up” in practice, Fleck said. “You don’t have to ask them, ‘Hey, did you feel practice is dipping at this part?’ They feel it, they know it, they solve it.”
Gophers players have been jockeying for the reputation as the team’s tightest position group.
“Everybody just enjoys being together, unlike years past,” senior Carter Coughlin said. “Now, I’m not saying that guys didn’t like being with teammates in years past, but this year it’s just different. It’s special.”
Fleck also said he doesn’t have to insist players organize and hold their own meetings anymore. Some players are realizing other things are needed as well. After Rodney Smith’s season ended with a torn anterior cruciate ligament last September, the senior running back became a bit of a coach on the sideline.
“I could tell before the game if we were ready to play, whether or not it would take us to halftime to get up to speed with the other team,” he said. When Smith relayed the information to running backs coach Kenni Burns “he would laugh at me.”
“He would tell me that the year before, ‘Hey, you need to get it going because I don’t feel it,’ ” Smith said.
There was a sense last winter that Minnesota would use last season’s strong finish to build a better record this fall. The Gophers showed up in some very early Top 25 polls, but the hype quickly faded. In a Cleveland.com preseason poll of 34 reporters in July, the Gophers were picked to finish sixth in the seven-team Big Ten West.
There have been outliers: the Big Ten Network’s Brent Yarnia has picked Minnesota to win the West, and some Vegas oddsmakers have Minnesota at 7½ wins, up from 6½ earlier in the year.
“We are picked to win (from) four games all the way to 12,” Fleck said.
While an undefeated season is hard to find online, Yahoo Sports’ Pat Forde, under the header of “suitably weird” predictions, wrote Minnesota will be 8-0 going into November. That’s when the U will face four programs currently the coaches of Associated Press poll.
“I’ve never been around a team that has more of a spectrum than that,” Fleck continued. “But that’s really exciting.”