College Football Playoff expansion welcome news to U coach Fleck

·3 min read

Count Gophers coach P.J. Fleck among those applauding Friday's announcement that the College Football Playoff will expand from four to 12 teams in the near future.

The CFP's board of directors unanimously voted to expand the playoff by 2026 and is encouraging conference commissioners to find a way to start the new format in 2024. Under the plan, the six highest-rated conference champions and six at-large teams will comprise the playoff field.

"You know me, I'm all about change. I'm all for change," Fleck said Monday. "It's fantastic. It's great for college football."

More playoff teams mean more chances to get into the playoff, and Fleck need only look back at his 2019 squad to see how earning a playoff spot under the new plan is not far-fetched for Minnesota.

In 2019, the Gophers were 10-1 and No. 8 in the CFP rankings entering the final game of the regular season before a 38-17 loss to Wisconsin dropped them to No. 18 in the last regular-season CFP rankings. Using the new plan with the 2019 CFP rankings, the 12-team playoff field would have been conference champions in LSU, Ohio State, Clemson, Oklahoma, Oregon and Boise State, and the six at-large teams would have been Georgia, Baylor, Wisconsin, Florida, Penn State and Utah. Had the Gophers beaten either Iowa or Wisconsin, they likely would have been ranked high enough to land in a 12-team playoff field.

While Fleck emphasized that teams already have a chance to make the four-team playoff, he sees the potential of a larger field.

"What it does is it makes it a little bit more diverse," Fleck said. "It allows for a little bit more parity for everybody to have a chance to be able to get in that somehow, some way if you have a really good run."

Fleck believes the expanded playoff will make the regular season more important because of the added opportunities. He doesn't, however, want to see the bowl system damaged by the playoff.

"If we can continue to keep the bowl structure the same, because I am still about the bowl experience," he said. "I love that part."

Addressing mental health

Saturday's game against Western Illinois at Huntington Bank Stadium will be the Gophers' Mental Health Awareness Game, and Fleck emphasized the importance of addressing "what's one of the biggest growing concerns in our world, especially with young student-athletes."

"I just want to make sure that if anybody is struggling out there, make sure you look for help," he said. "It's OK not to be OK. So, make sure you look out there and talk to some people. … If you're out there struggling, you're not alone."

Fleck said his team addresses mental health in meetings each Monday with the goal of seeing signs from someone in distress.

"It's about, 'Did somebody say something to somebody? Is somebody looking differently? Did a girlfriend break up with him? Did he get an 'F' on a test? Is he just acting a little bit different?' " Fleck said. "And that way, we can all put our arms around and look for signs constantly."

Ruschmeyer, Jackson on the mend

Offensive guard Axel Ruschmeyer, who left Thursday's win over New Mexico State in the third quarter because of a lower leg injury, is "fine," Fleck said. Wide receiver Daniel Jackson (lower leg), who missed Thursday's game, is expected to return to the lineup "very soon."