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Gophers getting head start on Quick Lane Bowl, and next season

Minnesota Golden Gophers head coach P.J. Fleck looks on during the third quarter against the Wisconsin Badgers last month at Camp Randall Stadium. (Jeff Hanisch / USA TODAY Sports)

When P.J. Fleck first became a head football coach, a colleague pulled him aside.

“He said, ‘I’ve got great advice for you,’ ” Fleck recalled Wednesday, Dec. 5. ” ‘You never, ever play Georgia Southern, or that Paul Johnson guy.’ And here I am.”

Fleck was sitting beside Johnson at Ford Field in Detroit on Wednesday as the first official business of the Quick Lane Bowl, which will pit Fleck’s Gophers (6-6) against Johnson’s Georgia Tech (7-5) in a 3:15 p.m. kickoff Dec. 26.

Johnson, the longtime coach at Navy and Georgia Tech whose first head coaching job was at Georgia Southern, has remained true to his increasingly rare triple-option attack, which the Gophers will have to solve in their first bowl game under Fleck, hired to replace Tracy Claeys in January 2017.

Fleck also has scheduled Georgia Southern twice, once at Western Michigan and on next year’s Gophers schedule, so drawing the Yellow Jackets is a timely turn of events.

“We’ve started to practice,” Fleck told reporters. “Playing Georgia Tech is a challenge, especially on offense; not only because of the players and the coaches they have, but the system and the style is different. You change a little bit of your defense to be able to stop that type of scheme.”

Johnson, who will step down as the Yellow Jackets’ coach after the game, said his team will practice about 10 times. Fleck put that number at 13 for Minnesota, the youngest team in major college football with 58 freshmen — about 14 of whom will start in the bowl game.

First, Fleck said, the Gophers will practice against one another to try to improve. Then they’ll focus in on Georgia Tech’s offensive system.

“The defense is going to change almost completely — which will help us maybe a little bit,” Fleck said.

Johnson, 61, didn’t commit to retiring.

“This is my 40th straight year of coaching without a break, and it’s probably time for a break,” he said. “That’s unusual in this profession. Usually they take you out before then, or at least you have a break. So, I’ll re-evaluate, and who knows? If it’s the last game, it’s the last game. And if I decide I can’t live without it, I may come back.

“Right now, I don’t know. I know I’m going to take a year off and evaluate where I am.”

The Gophers won two of their last three regular-season games to become bowl eligible, including a season-ending victory at Wisconsin, Minnesota’s first win against the Badgers since 2003 and first at Camp Randall Stadium since 1994.

“I was 14 years old last time that happened,” Fleck said. “To be able to have that victory and bring the Axe back to the university was really exciting for our fans and the band and our team. To have that victory after 15 years of not winning that (game) was a huge accomplishment for our players.”