INDIANAPOLIS – The gathering was taking place at the home of the Indianapolis Colts, but P.J. Fleck had a horse of a different color on his mind.
"You ever been to the Kentucky Derby?'' the Gophers football coach asked reporters on Thursday during Big Ten media days, then shifted focus to what it must feel like to be a jockey in such a big race. "I can imagine, right before you get in the chute, that anticipation you feel, and when they open the gate, you go.''
That's just the way Fleck feels about the season opener against mighty Ohio State on Sept. 2 in Minneapolis.
"The anticipation of playing a top-five team to open the season at Huntington Bank Stadium with the crowd being back for the first time, a sellout crowd, it's awesome,'' he said, "but it's still a football game.''
That football game should be one of the Gophers' most-anticipated home contests in recent memory, joining the 2019 games against Penn State and Wisconsin that had sold-out crowds at then-TCF Bank Stadium. Ohio State, the reigning national runner-up, is expected to be among the nation's top five when the major polls are released in August.
"Excited would be an understatement,'' Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan said of facing the Buckeyes in a stadium with the COVID-19 restrictions of 2020 lifted. "When I was a kid, I always dreamed of playing the biggest college football games. You have visions of packed stadiums. … I can't wait.''
First, though, the Gophers and the rest of college football will go through training camps, which start in early August. The monthlong rush to the opener will give Fleck and his team preparation time to bury last year's 3-4 disappointment and show that the 11-2 breakthrough of 2019 is a more accurate gauge of the program.
"We've got the whole month of August to prepare for them,'' Gophers running back Mohamed Ibrahim said, "and we're up for the challenge.''
That challenge will be massive. Ohio State has won the past four Big Ten championships and is 20-0 in conference play since coach Ryan Day took over for Urban Meyer following the 2018 season. Though the Buckeyes lost 10 players to the NFL draft this spring, they reload rather than rebuild, as shown by their five top-five national recruiting classes in the past six years.
Minnesota hasn't defeated Ohio State since 2000 and hasn't beaten the Buckeyes in Minneapolis since 1981. Day, though, is wary of a veteran team that returns Morgan, who's entering his fourth season as starting quarterback, and Ibrahim, the Big Ten running back of the year in 2020.
"I don't put all that much into last season [for Minnesota],'' he said Friday in Indianapolis. "When you look back to '19, that's probably the best picture of what they look like, so we'll go off that. … They make you earn everything you get.''
Among those the Buckeyes lost to the NFL was quarterback Justin Fields, who led Ohio State to back-to-back Big Ten championships. Day will choose among redshirt freshmen C.J. Stroud and Jack Miller and true freshman Kyle McCann during the first two weeks of camp.
"I'm nervous in any game right now with a young quarterback, especially one that hasn't thrown a college pass,'' Day said. "There will be a lot of sleepless nights before that first game.''
While Ohio State is a program that contends for national championships, Day respects the steps required to get there and is focusing first on the Gophers.
"The easy thing to do, coming off last year, is to focus on what would happen in the game at the end of the year, how do we get back to the national championship game,'' he said. "More importantly this year it's going to be how do we win that first game at Minnesota with a young team. … This preseason's going to be very, very important to us. We have to really come out of the gates strong and harden ourselves as we head into the first game.''
Fleck sees both the challenge ahead and the opportunity for a long shot to hit the wire first.
"Our players are taught to be humble enough to know that anybody can beat you if you're not at your best but confident enough to know that you can beat anybody if you are at your best,'' he said. "It's just like the Derby. There are so many horses, and on any given day, one can beat the other.''