Everyone know and discusses how much easier the 2016 Gopher schedule is than the previous one. This easier schedule, coupled with a returning 3-year starter at QB, is likely going to lead to an improved season. You saw earlier this week how the TDG Staff is VERY confident in this year's predicted record. Some were going a bit overboard into #HOMERMODE, but I think everyone is expecting a season in the 8-10 win range.
But how do we get there?
This schedule really seems to break down in to four key, 3-game sections. With the first and the third being sections of the schedule that really should be six wins and then the second and the forth where they have an opportunity to separate themselves and really make a difference in their final record.
1st Quarter - Non-Conference Foes
- Oregon State (TDG Preview)
- Indiana State (TDG Preview)
- Colorado State (TDG Preview)
These are the non-Big Ten teams and these are three games that should absolutely be wins. Oregon State was one of the worst P5 conference teams in the country last year, they aren't expected to be a whole lot better and they are coming to TCF Bank Stadium. If the Gophers want to make any sort of noise in the Big Ten West this year, this is the kind of game they need to win.
Indiana State is your FCS opponent and...well I'm not even going to talk about this one. It'll be a win.
Colorado State gave us a scare last year and it took overtime to win in the mountains. This year they are not expected to be as good, they are coming to The Bank and this also should be a win, and at this point I'd be thrilled if it is a big win.
At this point the Gophers should be 3-0 heading into the remaining 9 conference games.
2nd Quarter - The Big Ten Begins
- @Penn State (TDG Preview)
- Iowa (TDG Preview)
- @Maryland (TDG Preview)
For my money, this is the key stretch of the season. Win 2 or even 3 of these games and you are looking at a very special season. I could make an argument for winning all three of these as much as I could make an argument for losing them.
First is a trip to Happy Valley. It is still early in the season and PSU is breaking in a new quarterback. The other potentially bonus for the Gophers is that they'll be coming off a trip to Michigan, which is expected to be a beat-down. Can the Gophers take down the Nitany Lions on the road? This isn't a prediction post, but that's a tall order even if PSU is down and we are a little up. Certainly a critical game if you want to put yourself in position to win the West.
The following week they come up for the Big Ten opener but things are not going to get any easier. Iowa, last year's surprise undefeated team thanks in large part to a forgiving schedule, comes to The Bank with Floyd on the line. A huge game in any season but this season it is huge. A win and you've given yourself a tie-breaker over one of the teams that could end up winning the West. Once again...if you have delusions of winning this division, you'll need to beat a couple of the other contenders. Especially when you are at home. This should be a game of teams with a combined 1 or 2 losses and a big one in the early part of the season.
Finally this quarter is finished off by a trip to
Under Armor Maryland. On paper, this should be a win. But A, it is a road game and B, we could be reeling off a 2-game losing streak and struggling to get back on track. Maryland is one of the weaker teams in the conference but this game has to be a win. Either they'll need to be fighting overconfidence after securing a couple huge conference wins...or they'll be fighting to find their identity again.
Coming away with 2 wins in this stretch would be great and the dreams of a trip to Indy would still be alive.
3rd Quarter - The Breather...but don't take a Breather
- Rutgers (TDG Preview)
So this is the beginning of the second half of the season and another quarter of the season where the Gophers need to make hay (not even sure what that saying really means, but you get it). These are arguably the three worst teams in the conference, two of the games are at home and they all three have to be wins.
Rutgers? They were 1-7 last year in the Big Ten and likely going to finish last in the East again this year. Illinois is probably the best of these three, coming off 2 Big Ten wins and feeling exuberant with Lovie Smith coming to town, this one could be a trap game. And Purdue returns a lot of starters, but they were also a 1-win team in conference play and with this being at home it absolutely should be a win.
Now it should be stated, we are not nearly good enough to look past any Big Ten team and can absolutely lose to any of these three teams. But once again, if the Gophers want to make a run at a Big Ten West title or be in the conversation on Thanksgiving weekend, these three have to be wins. Dropping one here means you have to make up for it in the season's final quarter, which won't be easy.
4th Quarter - Time to Make a Move
Now it gets difficult. The hope is that this team is heading into the final three games with a very real opportunity to finish atop the West. At this point a 7-2 record (or better) should be one to give them confidence against these final three West contenders. These three teams are all believing that they are going to be in contention at this point of the season so these games are going to be critically important.
Nebraska is first up and we have to travel to Lincoln. No picnic down there but the interesting thing is that the Huskers will be coming off trips to Wisconsin and Ohio State in their previous two weeks. Maybe they'll be ready to take out some losses on the Gophers at home? Maybe they'll have battered egos with a couple losses? All I know is that I'd rather have just played Illinois and Purdue than travelled to Madison and Columbus in the weeks leading up to this game.
Northwestern at home is a key game. It is at home and while the Wildcats might be in the hunt, they are less likely to be so than Iowa, Nebraska or Wisconsin. This is a winnable game, senior day and is one of the lynch-pin games of the season (along PSU and Iowa in my opinion). Should be a good one.
Finally we head to Madison for a chance at The Axe and with any luck a chance at claiming the Big Ten West. Bear in mind that Wisconsin plays an absolutely horrendous schedule this year and by week 12, most expect they'll be out of the picture. At this point they are playing for pride and I kinda think retaining the Axe is going to be something they'll be really fighting for. A season with more losses than usual is one thing, but being the first team to lose the Axe (and at home) is something they won't give up easily.
A 7-2 conference record likely puts in you the driver's seat to win it, 6-3 is more likely and then needing the right wins for tie-breaker scenarios. Getting to six B1G wins is dicey but someone has to do it right? You'll probably have to win 2 of 3 from Iowa/Nebraska/Wisconsin unless you plan to run the table on everyone else, then you'll only need one of those.
Should be an interesting season. It starts with Oregon State and building some momentum before it gets into the heart of the schedule. The schedule is easier than previous seasons but let's not mistake it for being easy. But 2016 is finally here and this could be a memorable year for Gopher fans.