Spring ball is done and it is time to start looking ahead to real football, which is still 110 days (as of may 16th) away. Let's start taking a very early look at our 2011 opponents. This isn't intended to be a prediction segment or what will it take for us to win this game, rather I'm intending to give you an overview of our opponent's strengths, weaknesses, depth and what kind of importance does this game hold for the Gophers. I will do each of the Big Ten opponents individually but for the non-conference games I'm going with a broader overview. Ultimately we know less about these teams and while we care about wins, conference games are ones we tend to care about more than the non-conference ones.
We start the season at USC. Welcome to Gopher football, Coach Kill. What a way to start your career at Minnesota, huh? For Gopher fans this is going to be a very telling game. For years we would watch a Glen Mason led team destroy terribly weak opponents in week 1 and we'd have absolutely no idea if that year's Golden Gopher squad was any good or not. THen we would watch Tim Brewster teams lose to good teams and lose to FCS teams. Nobody is expecting the Gophers to beat the Trojans but what will be telling is how competitive will this game be?
USC is going to be very good. They are not the elite team we were used to seeing just a few years ago but they are still a very good team that is stockpiled with four and five star recruits. Todd McShay projected next year's NFL Draft (way, WAY too early I know but use it as a guide) and the Trojans have two players projected as top 5 picks. Quarterback Matt Barkley and offensive tackle Matt Kalil are both expected to be high first round picks. What does this mean? Not much other than USC has some very talented football players. The good news is that there is a possibility that last year's leading rusher may not be playing in week one. Marc Tyler got into a little trouble and may face disciplinary actions.
Offensively this is a loaded team but they are replacing 3 starters along the offensive line. But they are returning most of their skill position players, with the exception of WR-Ronald Johnson. Defensively they technically return seven starters but it is interesting that the post-spring depth chart has three 2010 starters listed as 2nd string. So either there is some disciplinary actions going on and those guys will "earn" their starting spots back in August or they have been passed on the depth chart.
As stated this team isn't the same as some of the Pete Carrol teams, but year two under Lane Kiffin may yield better results than year one. I am looking forward to watching a more discipline Gopher squad go on the road against a nationally recognized program, playing on ABC. USC may be a bit vulnerable, but I'm not putting any cash on the Gophers.
The rest of the non-conferenece teams after the jump
New Mexico State
2010 Season - 2-10
Enemy Blog - could not find one
Date: Sept 10
TV - 2:30 on BTN
The bad news for Gopher fans is that New Mexico State returns 9 starters on offense and 8 on defense. The good news is that they were just 2-10 a year ago. The Aggies head coach, DeWayne Walker, is a former Golden Gopher. After playing two years in the JUCO ranks, Walker played the 1980 and 1981 seasons in Minnesota. In fact he was on my long list of potential candidates to replace Tim Brewster (not that him being on my list actually means anything)
NMSU runs an air raid offense and deploys a 3-3-5 defense. Should be a very interesting test for the Gophers who are learning a new offensive and defensive system that will have to be applied very differently from week 1 to week 2.
Offensively Matt Christian will lead the Aggies as their starting QB. He started eight games last year as a junior and threw for 1,372 yards and 8 touchdowns to only 1 interception. Their leading rusher from a year ago, Kenny Turner, also returns along with 4/5 of their offensive line. Gone are their top two leading receivers. Defensively they return their top 4 tacklers and their top three sack men from 2010.
New Mexico State should be better than they were a year ago but the Gophers better not lose this one.
2010 Season - 10-4
Enemy Blog - Hustle Belt covers the MAC Conference
Date: Sept 17
TV - 2:30 on BTN
This game might be interesting. The Redhawks won their division of the MAC last year and then return 9 starters on offense and 8 on defense. This team should be poised to win the MAC again. Fortunately our coaching staff will be rather familiar with their personnel and likely won't be taking a MAC team for granted.
Zac Dysert is a two-year returning starter at QB who threw for over 2,400 yards last season. Their leading rusher and receiver from last season are gone, but much of the rest of this offense will be back. Defensively they lost two starters in the secondary but return the rest of a defense that finished 4th in the MAC in both yards and points allowed.
This should be a good game. A Big Ten program that is down and lost to a MAC team a year ago facing a team that might be the preseason favorite to win the MAC and go to another bowl game.
Do NOT take this team lightly. Yes, we should be better at nearly every position, but please remember that the Bison are not the only FCS team to beat us in recent memory. It is harder to get a firm grip on starters lost/returning but looking at who started game one of the playoffs for the Bison they are returning 7 starters on offense and 9 on defense. Gone from the offense is on along the OL, their TE, FB and 5th leading receiver. Defensively they lose a DT and a CB, neither finished in the top 8 on the team for tackles. Matthew Gratzek was second on the team in sacks and tackle for loss but they are returning a lot of production on the defensive side of the ball.
Under center will be sophomore, Brock Jensen. He started half of the games last year as a freshman and should be poised for a solid year going into the season as the undisputed starter. Jensen should be leading a team that will be expected to return to the FCS playoffs where they won two games a year ago. This year the expectations may be even higher.
This game makes me nervous. I really have no idea what to expect from the Gophers this year and history has shown me that we are capable of losing games like this. NDSU should be a very experienced team that is likely going to be an FCS playoff team again. I desperately hope that the Kill era will give us a Gopher team that will be disciplined and focused enough to take care of business in games like this.
There you have the non-conference opponents. No predictions just trying to give you a flavor of what to expect in the first month of the season. We are getting a nationally recognized program, one that is in much worse shape than we are and then a couple programs that should be very good at the level they are playing. Miami (OH) and NDSU are two very good non-BCS level schools who should give us a challenge.