The excitement of the Gopher football team's 2019 season has begun to wore off. As players are being tested in preparation for a return to campus, P.J. Fleck's team's next task is to build off the 11-2 campaign that saw the the Gophers on the verge of a Big Ten Championship and a spot in the College Football Playoff.
A piece that led the Gophers to success was receiver Rashod Bateman. In his sophomore season, Bateman burst onto the scene as the Big Ten Receiver of the Year with 1,219 yards and 11 touchdowns.
The campaign was good enough to be a semifinalist for the Biletnikoff Award, but entering 2020, Bateman has a chance to stake his claim as the best receiver in college football.
Bateman's importance to the Gopher offense
Coming into 2020, the Gophers return a majority of the elements that made Minnesota so dominant in 2019. While Tyler Johnson and Rodney Smith are gone, the Gophers have a solid replacement with Mohamed Ibrahim in the backfield and Bateman returning to his outside role at receiver.
Last season, Bateman was consistent as he averaged 3.48 yards per route run, which ranked for 9th among receivers with at least 300 routes run. Even more impressive was Bateman's efficiency, doing so with 95 targets from Tanner Morgan.
A lot of those numbers have to do with the presence of Johnson and Bateman should have a chance to post better numbers with more volume even though he may see double or triple teams.
A look at The Draft Network's top receiver prospects currently list Bateman sixth heading into the 2021 class. While NFL Draft prospects and actual college football performance can vary (see Jalen Reagor's TCU tape from last season), Bateman may be heading into one of the more favorable situations entering this season.
Bateman's quarterback is Tanner Morgan, who proceeded to shred every Minnesota passing record last year on the way to an Outback Bowl victory. In addition, Morgan ranked fourth in the FBS in passer rating, yards per attempt and adjusted yards per attempt.
A quick look at the rest of the receivers ahead of them and Ohio State's Chris Olave may have the best case as he is linked to potential first-round draft pick Justin Fields. Even top prospect J'Marr Chase has to deal with the loss of Joe Burrow and offensive coordinator Joe Brady to the NFL, which should open the door for Bateman to outproduce all of them.
What obstacles could Bateman face?
As mentioned, a lot of the pieces that helped the Gophers thrive last season are back offensively and with the defense needing more players to step up, the Gophers could be involved in more shootouts. But that doesn't mean Bateman won't have his share of obstacles to overcome.
Chris Autman-Bell is expected to take a leap forward into the starting lineup, but the rest of the Gopher pass-catching core doesn't have the same respectability that Bateman has. That could result in more double and perhaps triple teams which could force Morgan to go elsewhere.
The Gophers' schedule could also be a factor as Minnesota will avoid Ohio State again, but also see Michigan and Michigan State as their opponents from the East Division.
It's unknown how much these will factor into Bateman's 2020 season, but as someone who already owns multiple freshman and sophomore records, this fall could be Bateman's best season yet.