Just in case you haven't heard, Minnesota has a tough schedule this year. No really. They do. No, the Minnesota School for the Blind and the Northeast Southwestern Tech State that the Gophs usually play don't have really good teams this year. Believe it or not, the Maroon and Gold are finally playing some better non-conference opponents...ok they're playing ONE better conference opponent than they used to under Glen Mason. Still, four games against a beefed up non-con schedule combined with eight games against the strongest Big Ten competition in a decade (if you disagree with that, please tell me a more loaded year for the conference in the last 10. You can't) means the Gophs are going to have to play much better than they did last year just to get back to six wins and qualify for bowl eligibility.
Looking at this gauntlet, it breaks down into three categories: the five games against top 20 opponents, the other three non-cons, and then the four Big Ten games that will decide whether the Gophs go bowling or not.
The matchups against the "Big 5" (in order of appearance) #14 USC, #12 Wisconsin, #19 Penn State, #2 Ohio State, and #9 Iowa is daunting to say the least. While I'd love to predict an upset in at least one of them (with just one little upset of one of these five Coach Brew could do something he's never done before- beat a ranked opponent! And if he beats Penn State, Sconnie and or Iowa, he'd finally win a trophy game too! And yes, we're in year four and he hasn't done any of those things yet), you just can't count on having to beat one or more of these to get bowl eligible.
That then puts pressure on the other three non-con games against Middle Tennessee State, USD and Northern Illinois. I'm sure these were expected to be three easy wins when they were scheduled a few years back, but of course that's not the case anymore. The Gophers aren't as good as we'd hoped they would be in year four of Brewster Nation, and NIU and especially MTSU, are much better than we thought. USD? Let's just hope they don't play as well as their in-state rivals did last year (or that the Gophers will play as poorly as they did). Still, no matter how good these three programs could be, these are still three contests the Gophers not only have to win, but should win. If they don't sweep these three, then the four remaining games become even more important.
1. Northwestern, Oct 2, Minneapolis, MN
For the first time ever both schools meet after having gone to bowl games each of the past two seasons. While Northwestern is pretty much guaranteed to go bowling for a third consecutive time (they have four Glen Mason-esque non conference games plus Indiana, Purdue, AND Illinois. Oh and Iowa, who they've beaten four out of the last five meetings), this is one that will determine if the Gophers go bowling at all. The Wildcats have won two of the last three meetings, but with the rest of the home conference slate being as brutal as it is, Minnesota simply has to win this game. I still have nightmares of the 24-17 loss at the dome two years ago when Brewster got aggressive late in a tie game, it went for a pick six and a loss. Let's hope we can wipe that one from our memories with a victory.
2. Purdue, Oct 16, West Lafayette, IN
The Boilermakers had about the most optimistic five win season you can get in Danny Hope's first year as head coach. They went 4-4 in the Big Ten, including the upset of the conference season beating Ohio State. That upset was so big it made fans forget they could have beaten Notre Dame too had Hope not called a dumb timeout late in the game. Despite that little blunder, Hope really did have a good first year, and there's reason for further optimism for 2010 with Miami transfer Robert Marve coming in to play QB and Big Ten receptions leader Keith Smith returning. Still, while Purdue should be improved, this is a winnable game for Minnesota. I expect Purdue to play much better than they did in their 2009 loss 35-20 at TCF Bank stadium on an early October afternoon that felt like the middle of January, but I expect the Gophs to play better too. Purdue actually outgained Minnesota 402-281, but because the Gopher D was good, and timely with their turnovers, it was all the Maroon and Gold needed that day. They will need a lot more to beat a good Purdue team on the road, but it can be done. And it'll need to be.
3. Michigan State, Nov 6, East Lansing, MI
Their meeting last year was the best Gopher game of the season, a 42-35 shootout victory where I was pretty sure the world would come to an end after watching the Gopher offense look- dare I say it- good (yeah the world-and the offense- went back to normal the very next week). Sure it only lasted one whole game, but it was still fun, and was my best memory of the 2009 season. For the Spartans, it was just another heartbreaking loss in a very strange season, although I'm not even sure it would rank in their three worst losses of 2009: 33-30 to Notre Dame, 15-13 to Iowa and then 10-0 to some frat house (that score is the number of players lost to suspension because of a brawl. I didn't hear of any of the punk frat kids getting suspended). The 2010 meeting will be huge for both sides, as Spartans coach Mark Dantonio is going to have his coaching hot seat turned up to "Brewster" if he turns in another season like last year. For Brewster, it's a chance to accomplish yet another first: beating a 1-A opponent in the month of November. Oh the drama!
4. Illinois, Nov 13, Champaign, IL
Will Ron Zook still be the Illini coach for this game? Then again, will Tim Brewster still be coaching Minnesota? Stay tuned for that intrigue and much more! Ok so definitely not the most glamorous game on the slate, but it's another must-win for the Gophs' bowl hopes. Minnesota stole a victory down in Champaign two years ago when Illinois looked good (they of course fell apart the rest of the season), then the Illini returned the favor last year with a 35-32 shocker at The Bank. Minnesota needs to steal another Big Ten road victory, and of the four pivotal games, this one seems the most likely. Then again, I would have said the same thing last year and look how that turned out.
If the Gophers play well, they could go 4-0 in these four games, putting them in great shape for six or seven wins. If they don't, they could just as easily go 0-4 and make good on so many local and national pundit's predictions of a 2 or 3 win season. I predict they beat Northwestern and Purdue, and after a close loss to Michigan State, Brewster will finally get a win in November against a Big Ten foe when they knock off Illinois. If they can find three more wins, especially if one comes against the "Big 5," that'll be enough for the Gophs to go bowling and for Brewster to keep his job.