Much has been made of the difficult schedule the Gophers face heading into 2010. Iowa, Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin, and USC. Five games that few analysts would pick Minnesota to win. In just two games, versus Northern Illinois and South Dakota, are the Gophers likely to be the hands-down favorites. Did I forget Middle Tennessee State? No. Middle Tennessee State was 10-3 last year. Fringe Bowl Team Blog did a solid write-up about that game at this link.
Remember the 2003 season when the non-conference schedule featured Tulsa, Troy State, Ohio (not Ohio State), and Louisiana-Lafayette? The Gophers lost to all three ranked teams that they played yet finished the season with a 10-3 record and a Top 25 ranking. Easy schedules can inflate the record. Tough schedules don't usually result in double-digit win seasons for teams that aren't stockpiled with blue chip recruits.
Take, for example, Boise State's 14-0 record in 2009. Impressive, but only two of the victories were against ranked teams. Besides the Oregon and TCU wins, the Broncos played teams such as Utah State, Idaho, Tulsa, and UC Davis. How would their 180 pound (soaking wet) quarterback with only one offensive lineman on the whole team over 300 pounds have held up against Ohio State, Penn State, Iowa, and Wisconsin on the schedule?
It's fairly clear that despite BCS attempts to pro-rate schedule strength, creampuff schedules inflate the perception of a teams' strength and prevent players from wearing down as the season progresses. So, why the tough schedule for Minnesota?
First, the simple part of the answer. The Big Ten is a good conference. Middle-of-the-conference teams in the SEC and the Big 12 can relate to this phenomenon. Playing big, tough competition week in and week out wears a team down and lowers the win total.
With a grueling conference schedule, why add games such as the series with USC to the mix? Three reasons. First, better opponents usually result in better revenue from ticket sales, apparel sales, and other sources. There's a brand new stadium on campus that needs to have seats filled. Second, the prospect of playing games versus great programs is a powerful selling point for recruits who want to be a part of the action. Third, if a school truly wants to be perceived as having a big-time football program they need to play big-time teams.
In theory, an easy schedule will pave the road to short-term success while a tough schedule may sacrifice near-term success for future prosperity.
2010 will be a pivotal season for Gopher Football. A 7-5 season or better will be a sure sign of better things to come, while a 2-10 season could lead to a coaching change, an exodus of talent, and another multi-year rebuilding process.
In just six months we should all know whether scheduling tough opponents was a boom or a bust.