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Minnesota Football vs TCU: Key Matchups Preview

Can Minnesota upset TCU? Let's take a look at the matchups that could make or break their chances of winning this game.

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Football season is almost here! Nervous excitement is how I'd best describe my own feelings as we near the start of what is certain to be an interesting season. But enough about feelings! Each week until the end of the season, I'll be highlighting the key matchups in the Gophers' upcoming game. For this inaugural installment, the spotlight turns to the TCU Horned Frogs.

Since we've yet to see either team in action and both are dealing with personnel losses on different sides of the ball, it is hard to know exactly what to expect come September 3rd, so I spent some time looking back on last year's matchup in Fort Worth. The Gophers' defense, in hindsight, held up well against one of the most prolific offenses in the nation last season. The offense, on the other hand, was abysmal both on the ground and in the air, with 5 turnovers to boot. This coaching staff's philosophy emphasizes winning the field position battle, and the Gophers came up woefully short against the Horned Frogs last year in that regard. The Gopher defense was on its heels for much of the game, and it is a testament to their efforts that the final score was not worse.

With that said, I think this game comes down to two key matchups.

Gophers' front seven vs. Horned Frogs' offensive line.

Last year, the Gophers' secondary struggled in the early going, with wide receiver Josh Doctson running roughshod over Jalen Myrick en route to 2 touchdowns through the air in the first half. Once the defense settled down at halftime, the Gophers were able to clamp down on Trevone Boykin and the Horned Frogs' passing game in the second half, limiting them to 107 passing yards and no touchdowns. With much of the defensive backfield returning, including All-Big Ten corners Eric Murray and Briean Boddy-Calhoun, the question marks lie with a defensive front seven replacing three starters.

Full Week 1 Coverage From TDG

The Horned Frogs features five seniors on the offensive line, all but one of them a returning starter. Senior center Joey Hunt was named to the preseason watch list for the Rimington Award. So pressuring Boykin and keeping him contained in the pocket will be easier said than done. His ability to elude defenders and make something out of nothing with his legs can be a back breaker for opposing defenses. The Gophers also failed to record a single sack against TCU last year, so defensive ends Theiren Cockran and Hank Ekpe will have their work cut out for them.

Senior running back Aaron Green wasn't much of a factor against Minnesota last year, but he emerged for TCU down the stretch, topping 100 rushing yards in 4 of their last 7 games without ever receiving more than 19 carries in a game. With a vaunted secondary to keep the receivers in check, much of the pressure will be on the Gophers' front seven to penetrate the Horned Frogs' offensive line, stifle the running game, and prevent Boykin from escaping the pocket. No small task.

Gophers' wide receivers and tight ends vs. Horned Frogs' secondary.

The million dollar question of the offseason has been: Can the Gophers pass the ball without Maxx Williams? Everyone and their mother knows that Gophers need to improve their passing game in order to compete at a high level. Mitch Leidner has been tabbed as the man with the most pressure on his shoulders, but the great unknown is who he'll be throwing the ball to. KJ Maye is his most proven receiver. Drew Wolitarsky, Eric Carter, and the crop of redshirt freshmen receivers all have the potential to emerge, but we won't know until they take the field. The tight end position is also unsettled, with a number of options that have garnered praise from the coaching staff but no clear cut favorite.

TCU's Defense Explained Further

TCU's Defense Explained Further

The Horned Frogs' run a base 4-2-5 defense and return 2 of their 5 starting defensive backs, including senior safety Derrick Kindred, who snagged an interception and recovered a fumble last year. TCU was vulnerable against the pass last season, at least as far as statistics go, ranking 75th in the nation in passing yards allowed (although that could also be the product of lining up against prolific Big 12 passing offenses like Baylor). The Gophers' passing game is nowhere near the caliber of Baylor's, so I doubt the Horned Frogs are shaking in their boots at the prospect of lining up against the Gophers' young receiving corps. They certainly won't be intimidated after watching last season's game film, having allowed just 169 passing yards to Minnesota.

I think the Gophers will be able to run the ball effectively, but I don't think they'll be able to impose their will in the running game all game long. Hence the need for a decent passing game to keep TCU from stacking the box and stuffing the run every play. With a young group of inexperienced receivers, a few less competitive non-conference games would be ideal for their development, but unfortunately they'll need to step up fast if the Gophers are going to have a shot at upsetting the Horned Frogs.

Any other matchups that you think could be the difference in this game?