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Ranking Minnesota’s football schedule, from least to most difficult games

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No. 1 may come as a surprise

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Two caveats, before I get into my rankings: These are not power rankings. They may not be all that different from how I’d rank these teams straight up, but I’m trying to take into account the context details of each matchup. The other caveat is that preseason prognostication in an ordinary year should be taken with a grain of salt, but feel free to empty the shaker for these rankings. It could be a wild season, so chaos may win the day.

Starting from the bottom:

8. at Maryland (Oct. 31)

I’ve not been impressed by head coach Mike Locksley.

7. vs Northwestern (Dec. 5)

I don’t really know what to make of Northwestern. Can new offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian breathe life into what was one of the worst offenses in all of college football last season? He’ll have something like five quarterbacks to choose from, including Indiana transfer Peyton Ramsey.

6. at Nebraska (Dec. 12)

The concern here would be that Nebraska’s players try to rally for a win on Senior Day and avoid a 1-7 finish. But with no bowl eligibility requirements, the self-appointed saviors of the Big Ten football season can save some of that energy for the First Responder Bowl.

5. at Illinois (Nov. 7)

I’m not sold on the Fighting Illini’s late season surge a year ago amounting to any real momentum for the program, but I am concerned that head coach Lovie Smith has the skill players on offense to take advantage of a Gopher defense that will still be finding its sea legs in Week 3. Champaign has also not been to Minnesota in recent years, as the Gophers are 1-2 in their last three trips to Illinois. And before you mention that there will be no fans in attendance, I don’t know how much of a difference that will be from past games at Memorial Stadium.

4. vs Purdue (Nov. 21)

I’ve gone on record that I think Purdue will be a dangerous team in the West, especially now that All-American wide receiver Rondale Moore has opted back in. Just how dangerous will depend on whether their starting quarterback can cut down on turnovers, their offensive line can improve upon a terrible 2019 campaign, and new defensive coordinator Bob Diaco can develop a competent Boilermaker defense. They return a wealth of talent and experience, but the onus is on them to take advantage of that talent and experience.

3. at Wisconsin (Nov. 28)

Until further notice, the road to a Big Ten West division championship runs through Madison. The Gophers got the better of the Badgers at Camp Randall in 2018, but the Badgers punched back — and punched their ticket to Indianapolis — at TCF Bank Stadium in 2019. Who will come out on top in 2020? Wisconsin needs to replace running back Jonathan Taylor, wide receiver Quintez Cephus, three offensive line starters, and potentially quarterback Jack Coan depending on how long he is sidelined with a broken foot. But that defense, minus only two starters from last year, always presents a formidable challenge for Minnesota.

2. vs Michigan (Oct. 24)

Michigan enters the season with a lot of unknowns — a new starting quarterback, losing three of their four top receivers from a season ago, an offensive line replacing four starters, all three starting linebackers graduating, and a secondary further diminished by the opt-out of projected starting cornerback Ambry Thomas — but a season opener can turn a lot of those unknowns into advantages. And Minnesota won’t have the benefit of a non-conference slate to work out their own kinks. The Gophers are going to have their hands full trying to take back the Jug.

1. vs Iowa (Nov. 14)

Not what you were expecting? I believe Iowa, not Wisconsin, is the team to beat in the West. I feel the Hawkeyes have less question marks than the Badgers, even with a redshirt sophomore starting quarterback who has only made 10 collegiate pass attempts. Their new signal caller will benefit from starting running back Tyler Goodson building on a promising freshman season, an underrated receiving corps led by Ihmir Smith-Marsette, and a typically stout offensive line replacing only two starters. Defensive coordinator Phil Parker has his work cut out for him replacing six starters, including All-American defensive end A.J. Epenesa, but reloading on defense has never been much of a problem for the Hawkeyes.

Then there is the fact that Minnesota has not beaten Iowa since 2014. That streak must end.