During the month of August, college football prognostication goes into full swing. The Daily Gopher is not an exception to this phenomenon. There has been plenty of digital ink spilled on how Minnesota will perform, given their schedule and weighing other pertinent variables, both at TDG and other places. Bill C's magical numbers at Football Study Hall have the Gophers projected to win 7.5 games. The crew at Off Tackle Empire also have the Gophers pegged for 7.5 wins via their staff predictions. And most commenters around these parts have vacillated somewhere in 6 to 10 range for an average of about 8 wins.
It seems that the general consensus around these parts is that the Gophers will win 7 or 8 games. And that seems both logical and safe. The intent of the following is to reinforce these beliefs and throw out other related numbers to further instill a "floor" and "ceiling" for the 2016 edition of Minnesota Football.
Previous Minnesota Iterations
It is common practice among both professional and amateur college football prognosticators to utilize a team's returning roster in order to predict the results of an upcoming season. This is only sensible. So for this reason, below is a chart that displays what the opponents of Minnesota's losses look like from an advanced statistics perspective. The last three years' results are included to signify the four year turnover of a football roster.
Included in the chart are indicators of losses against upper echelon competition as well as "bad" losses. Even though Minnesota has accumulated 15 regular season losses in the last three years (average of five per year, obviously), they have rarely dropped a game to an opponent outside the top 50 teams in the country (by their final S&P+ ranking). The only instances of losing to a sub-50 opponents in the last three years were away games to Northwestern (2015) and Illinois (2014). It should be noted that in the Illinois game, several players were dealing with a vicious flu bug and an uncharacteristic fumble near Minnesota's own goal line by David Cobb swung the game in the Illini's favor. The Northwestern game, on the hand, was just a plain old butt-whooping. However, considering the 15 total losses, Minnesota has only lost once to a truly mediocre FBS team. Keep this in mind when we examine the next chart below.
Another take away from the above chart is that game location has been relatively erroneous when considering the Gophers' recent losses. Seven came at TCF Bank Stadium with the remaining eight happening on the road. Furthermore, the only non-conference losses from the last three years were two tough matchups against TCU, who ranked 8th and 26th in S&P+ in 2014 and 2015, respectively.
2016 Schedule at an Advanced Glance
Bill C at Football Study Hall has created projections for all FBS teams coming into the 2016 season. Below is the Minnesota Golden Gopher schedule for 2016, with a color-coded key based on level of difficulty of each matchup that I created to give some perspective to each game.
Using a very bare bones analysis, there are no games that one could consider a "likely loss" (against projected top 25 S&P+ squads). Now, obviously these are only projections and should be taken with a grain of salt. But it is interesting to see that the Gophers have only two perceived top 35 opponents on their schedule the entire season (neither of which are considered in the top 25), compared to the bear of the 2015 schedule that had four top 35 teams (two of which were considered in the top 10). Since Minnesota (for reference sake, they are projected at 42nd in S&P+ for 2016) hasn't lost to a team ranked lower than 65th in S&P+ the last three years, the chart considers teams with 66 and above ranking a "likely win." That means the absolute baseline, or "floor", for the 2016 Gophers should be six wins. If the Gophers were to lose one of the games in dark green, something will have occurred that hasn't occurred since 2012.
It's also fair to say that the second chart is a more conservative approach to the season, designating Iowa as a "lean loss" and Maryland as a "lean win." If we use the 42nd ranking of Minnesota by projected S&P+ for 2016 and consider all teams ranked above that losses and all teams ranked below that wins, the Gophers would be pegged with eight wins. So if we get aggressive in our optimism and consider wins in the "lean win," "tossup" and one of the four "lean losses," games, we'd see a logical ceiling at nine wins.
It's been emphasized over and over again that the games that will likely make or break the season are the "Quadrangle of Hate" games against Iowa, and at Nebraska Wisconsin. The second chart seems to reinforce this belief.
Without delving into specific players and positions, and looking at the 2016 season from a bare bones level, it would appear that the Gophers fortuitous schedule grants them the possibility of a highly successful season. Even in a "worst-case scenario" where injuries and close losses against superior teams rule the day similarly to 2015, a six win season is probably the absolute floor, considering the recent stretch of play from the program. Minnesota has established itself as consistently capable of beating teams ranked in the lower half of FBS according to S&P+. Since their schedule is chock-full of teams that fit this criteria, logic would seem to indicate six wins as an absolute floor. For them to go below this thresh hold would require extraordinary circumstances. Now, after watching last season unfold, we know that "extraordinary circumstances" are not impossible but Gopher nation has to take some comfort in the decent number of likely wins that exist on the schedule.
The ceiling of the 2016 squad, on the other hand, is a lot less concrete. S&P+ takes into account recruiting rankings and the returning perceived talent of FBS teams. You don't have to squint to see that Penn State might be slightly overrated by this metric, making that trip to Happy Valley appear more manageable based on recent results from the Nittany Lions and Coach Franklin. Couple a surprise win there with wins against Iowa and Northwestern at home and a 10-win season isn't out of the realm of statistical possibility.
Logical Floor: 6-6 (3-6)
Logical Ceiling: 10-2 (7-2)