2015 Record: 7-6 (5-3 MWC)
2015 Final S&P+ Ranking: 81st
2016 Projected S&P+ Ranking: 96th
Returning Starters: 6 Offense, 4 Defense
The Gophers should remember the Rams
Despite the departure of head coach Jim McElwain to Florida, the Rams were expected to be a solid team out of the Mountain West last season after a 10-3 finish in 2014. But the loss of McElwain, coupled with the graduation of their starting quarterback, starting running back, and top two tacklers, proved to be more of a setback than expected. With former Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo at the helm, Colorado State endured an up-and-down season and finished 7-6, even with one of the nation's best receivers in Rashard Higgins (now with the Cleveland Browns). But the Rams were able to finish strong, winning four straight games to end the season (three of them on the road) before falling to Nevada 28-23 in the Arizona Bowl.
The Gophers needed overtime to beat the Rams on the road a season ago. Minnesota couldn't find the end zone until the second half due to an abysmal performance from the offensive line, but a stout Gopher defense kept them in the game until Mitch Leidner came alive with touchdown passes to Drew Wolitarsky and KJ Maye. No one expected the game to be a walk in the park, but the outcome was very much in doubt until the final minutes. Much too close for comfort for most Gopher fans. Two interceptions and two fumbles -- one of which effectively sealed the deal in overtime -- were killer for Colorado State, but a poor showing from quarterback Nick Stevens (19 attempts, 8 completions, 51 passing yards, 2 interceptions) didn't help matters either.
No shortage of experience on offense aside from one gaping hole
Stevens is back under center for the Rams after having to fill the shoes of the school's career pass leader last season. His numbers were decent -- 347 attempts, 211 completions, 2,679 passing yards, 21 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions -- and he improved as the season went along last year. The challenge will be finding someone to catch the ball, as Colorado State loses their four leading receivers from last season, including Higgins, who accounted for 75 receptions (the next closest was 28), 1,062 receiving yards, and 8 touchdowns. That is the biggest question mark on this side of the ball for the Rams.
There is no doubt who the starting running back will be, as junior Dalyn Dawkins returns. Dawkins ran for 92 yards on 19 carries with one touchdown against the Gophers last season, en route to a season total of 910 rushing yards on 170 carries. He'll be running behind an offensive line loaded with upperclassmen, as four starters return to anchor a line that will feature three seniors and two juniors. This is a unit that could give the Gophers trouble if the defensive line hasn't improved. Last season, the Rams were 33rd in the nation in rushing offense (197.8 yards per game), 22nd in sacks allowed (17), and 10th in tackles for loss allowed (4.62 per game).
The Colorado State defense is a mixed bag
Like the wide receiver position on offense, the Rams have their work cut out for them on the defensive line, where all four of last season's starters need to be replaced. Junior tackle Josh Lovingood is their most experienced defensive lineman, with 17 tackles and 1 tackle for loss last season. The Colorado State defensive line was that good to begin with last season -- 106th in rushing defense -- so there is plenty of room for improvement, but very few experienced players to step in and succeed.
The Rams lose one starter at linebacker, but return senior middle linebacker and last season's leading tackler Kevin Davis. Senior outside linebacker and fourth leading tackler Deonte Clyburn also returns to help anchor an experienced unit. Colorado State ranked 23rd in the nation last season in tackles for loss, and returning starters Davis, Clyburn, and sophomore Josh Watson combined for 22.5 of them. The defensive line could have issues, but the veteran unit behind them won't be nearly as green.
Senior cornerback Tyree Simmons is the top returner in a defensive backfield that must replace three- and four-year starters at safety -- also the team's second and third leading tacklers a year ago -- in addition to last season's top cornerback. The Rams will rely on converted wide receiver Jordan Vaden at the cornerback spot opposite Simmons. The fact that Colorado State signed six defensive backs in their latest recruiting class is a clear sign that this unit needs to be shored up.
Colorado State have also promoted linebackers coach Marty English to defensive coordinator -- a position he held under McElwain back in 2014 -- after the departure of Tyson Summers to Georgia Southern.
Can the Gophers beat the Rams?
Minnesota beat Colorado State at their own stadium last season, so clearly the Gophers are capable of coming out victorious. But it was also a much tighter affair than anyone expected. I don't expect the Rams to be much better than they were last season, with huge holes at wide receiver and on the defensive line. The key will be if the Gophers can stay healthy during the non-conference schedule and avoid playing down to their competition. To me, it'll ultimately come down to a battle in the trenches. The Rams have a strong offensive line, and defensive line play has been a weak spot for the Gophers in recent years. The Gophers need improvement on their own offensive line, but an inexperienced defensive line from Colorado State could be a recipe for success.
The Gophers will also be at home and coming off their bye week, so that should help their cause. Ultimately, this is a game that Minnesota should win, but the question is how close the final score will be.
For more on the Colorado State Rams, check out a more in-depth preview from SB Nation's Bill Connelly.