Column | Illinois-Minnesota is the next Big Ten rivalry

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Cameron Krasucki

Head coach Bret Bielema celebrates with quarterback Brandon Peters during the game against Maryland on Sept. 17. Peters has signed with the Los Angeles Chargers as undrafted free agent.

By Carson Gourdie, Staff Writer

Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck recently signed a seven-year extension, putting an end to any coaching carousel talk. Fleck is here to stay in the Big Ten West, and this week’s game against Illinois could be a sneak peek of a new Big Ten rivalry. 

Illinois and Minnesota are two schools on the rise. While Minnesota has enjoyed more recent success, the product on the field for Illinois is undoubtedly better. 

Illinois’ defense under Ryan Walters has exceeded all expectations, allowing a mere 19.5 points per game in conference games. Lovie Smith’s defense allowed 27.2 points per game in conference play in 2019. 

The offense has been disappointing under the direction of Tony Petersen, but in his defense, he hasn’t had the best personnel. Playing with quarterbacks as wide receivers — Isaiah Williams and Deuce Spann — isn’t ideal. Playing with a sixth-year quarterback isn’t ideal. But if Illinois had any sort of passing attack, Purdue and Maryland would’ve lost to the Illini. 

It’s not fair to say that Fleck inherited a broken program or a program that was worse than Illinois. The season prior to Fleck heading to Minneapolis, the Golden Gophers achieved a 9-4 record based on the infrastructure built by Jerry Kill. But Fleck undoubtedly raised the program’s status with his showman-like demeanor. 

Minnesota ranked at least 12th or worse in the Big Ten recruiting rankings from 2012-2015. Under Fleck, he has risen the recruiting ranking to a peak of seventh, and he has crafted his offensive image by having an offensive line that has registered 182 total career starts. 

What impact has his offensive line had on the program? It allowed the Golden Gophers to overcome the loss of its three starting running backs, including the loss of preseason All-American Mo Ibrahim. It allowed the Golden Gophers to overcome the dramatic downfall of Tanner Morgan, who has six passing touchdowns this season compared to the 30 touchdowns he threw in 2019. 

Fleck has done an excellent job of elevating the program by being vocal about how Minnesota is a place where you can win. Unlike Jerry Kill or Tracy Claeys, Fleck can win over the media with funny soundbites and stories.

Bret Bielema employs the same niche. Compared to Smith, Bielema provides a shot in the arm of excitement for a program that hasn’t appeared in back-to-back bowl games since 2011. 

I truly believe in the next two years, Minnesota will overtake Wisconsin as the premier program in the Big Ten West. Wisconsin runs an outdated offensive scheme that consistently has to be bailed out by an elite defense. What will happen when Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard leaves for a head-coaching position?

I believe that Iowa is not a serious contender for titles either. Iowa has had only one appearance in Indianapolis since the Big Ten switched to divisions. Head coach Kirk Ferentz has handcuffed the program with nepotism, as his son is the offensive coordinator of a team that has scored 14 combined points in its last two games. Iowa’s defense is fantastic, but the lack of talent at the skill positions is concerning. 

Minnesota has what Iowa and Wisconsin don’t have: swagger. They play in a big city with an energetic head coach that’s willing to make the necessary changes by taking risks. Fleck, in 2019, employed an air-raid attack with Tanner Morgan as quarterback. Now with the downfall of Morgan, he’s gone full smashmouth with his offensive line. Fleck has a history of firing coordinators and replacing them with proven names that he is willing to cough up the money for. 

If you’re an Illinois fan, watching Minnesota succeed should give you hope that Bielema can turn the Illini into the next annual contender for Indianapolis. Fleck, an Illinois native, has 13 players on his roster from the Land of Lincoln. Fleck has a big personality, like Bielema himself. Fleck has dedicated himself to his university, signaling he isn’t going anywhere.

News flash: Bielema isn’t going anywhere, either. 

I used to be a very harsh critic of Bielema, as I found his Wisconsin tenure to be a product of the infrastructure built by Barry Alveraz. However, what the Big Ten West has shown is that a strong offensive line can mask a lot of issues, and Bielema has done a good job of developing those positions, as he’s sent more offensive linemen to the pros than any head coach — aside from Nick Saban — in the past decade. 

While Minnesota gains the edge right now because of Fleck’s talent as a marketer, Bielema has the brain and the brawn to rival him while also having a better environment around him. Bielema has better facilities and a better in-state recruiting pipeline. 

While Illinois is only 3-6, Saturday’s game will serve as an appetizer for a new Big Ten rivalry. If Illinois can make proper adjustments — such as nailing the transfer portal for a quarterback and keeping Ryan Walters for a while — Illinois will have the ability to rival Minnesota’s rise to Big Ten West dominance. 

 

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