2015 Record: 5-6 (3-5 MVC)
2015 Final S&P+ Ranking: NA
2016 Projected S&P+ Ranking: NA
Returning Starters: 5 Offense, 5 Defense
This is an FCS program that was 5-6 a season ago
Not to be curt, but that is the biggest takeaway when matching up Minnesota with Indiana State. This is not North Dakota State by any stretch of the imagination. The Sycamores are 14-23 over the last three seasons since head coach Mike Sanford took the helm. Their 5-6 campaign last season included a blowout 38-14 lost to the Purdue Boilermakers, a Big Team that finished the season 2-10. Indiana State spent much of the season ranked in the FCS Top 25, in large due to a 4-2 start to the season, before a 1-4 collapse to end the season knocked them out.
With that said, four of their six losses came against teams ranked in the FCS Top 25. So the argument could be made that the Sycamores were simply a decent team stuck with a brutal schedule down the stretch. But even taking that into consideration, Minnesota has no business losing to this team. And the Gophers have taken care of business against their last three FCS opponents, with wins over New Hampshire (2012), Western Illinois (2013), and Eastern Illinois (2014). So I expect more of the same this in Week 2.
Injuries and academics are a problem on offense
Junior quarterback Matt Adam will sit this season out due to academics, leaving the Sycamores without their starting quarterback from last year. Under center for Indiana State, Adam threw for 2,098 yards, 19 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions, in addition to 494 rushing yards and four scores on the ground. So he will be missed. Head coach Mike Sanford hasn't named a starter, but redshirt sophomore Isaac Harker is the lone quarterback on the roster with game experience. His competition are a pair of freshmen and Aaron Young, a transfer from Wyoming.
The Sycamores do return their leading rusher -- senior running back Roland Genesy -- but all he could muster last season were 582 rushing yards and three touchdowns coming off the bench (outperforming starter LeMonte Booker, who will miss this season after tearing his ACL in the spring). Three of their five top receivers return, including senior standout Robert Tonyan Jr. (40 receptions, 601 receiving yards, 6 touchdowns). Three upperclassmen starters are back from an offensive line that ranked 45th in FCS in rushing offense but 121st in sacks allowed.
This Sycamore offense ranked 60th in total offense last season in the FCS, and will be without their starting quarterback and running back this season. If the Gopher defense lives up to expectations, Minnesota should be able to smother Indiana State.
Nowhere to go but up for the Sycamore defense
Indiana State was miserable on defense a season ago, even by FCS standards. Other than passing yards allowed, in which the Sycamores ranked 52nd, Indiana State finished the season 80th or worse in a virtually all defensive categories: total defense, scoring defense, rushing yards allowed, sacks, and tackles for loss.
Senior linebacker Jameer Thurman is the clear leader of the defense. Indiana State coaches and fans are looking forward to having sophomore Jordan Jackson back after losing him for all of last season due to injury, but it sounds like keeping him healthy and on the field will be the true challenge. Former Illinois linebacker Cedric Doxy will also be in the mix after transferring last season.
The Sycamores will need to replace their two starting cornerbacks -- junior Kevin Beacham and sophomore Jonathan Henderson are expected to step up -- but have returning starter and senior Tsali Lough at the safety position, with experienced veteran safety Phil Wilson starting opposite him. Depth in the defensive backfield is almost non-existent in terms of experience, so Indiana State will need to cross their fingers and hope that their starters are both capable and healthy for much of the season.
Senior defensive tackle Conlan Cassidy will be one to watch. Evidently, in addition to anchoring the defensive line, Cassidy has a penchant for letting his emotions get the best of him, resulting in a few too many personal foul and unsportsmanlike penalties. He'll be one to keep an eye on. He leads a group of defensive lineman that the Indiana State coaching staff view as their deepest unit on the defensive side of the ball.
Can the Gophers beat the Sycamores?
Absolutely. Not even a question. Barring disaster -- you know, Tracy Claeys stepping down after Week 1 and handing the coaching reins back over to Tim Brewster for the remainder of the season -- the Sycamores don't stand a chance in this game. This is an FCS program coming off a sub-.500 season that included a blowout loss to Purdue. Indiana State isn't a bad team by FCS standards, having spent much of last season ranked. But there is nothing about the Sycamores that should intimidate a Big Ten opponent.
I'll stop now before I'm overcome with traumatic flashbacks to South Dakota in 2010.