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Minnesota Football: Breaking down the Gophers’ 2020 schedule

A way-too-early look ahead at what next season may hold in store for Minnesota

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Minnesota Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

First, let’s take a look at Minnesota, then we’ll move on to their opponents.

Minnesota Golden Gophers

2019 Record: 11-2 (7-2, T-1st B1G West)
Postseason: W 31-24 vs Auburn, Outback Bowl
Final 2019 S&P+ Ranking: 13th
Returning Starters: 9 Offense, 4 Defense
Returning Production: 82% Offense, 33% Defense

The good news: The Gophers’ offense took a huge step forward in 2019 and much of that firepower isn’t going anywhere. All-Big Ten quarterback Tanner Morgan will be back under center, Big Ten Receiver of the Year Rashod Bateman returns, and Minnesota retains all five starters on the offensive line. The Gophers will need to replace running back Rodney Smith and wide receiver Tyler Johnson, but there is plenty of young talent at the skill positions.

The bad news: The Gopher defense will need to be rebuilt. This will be a true test of Fleck and co.’s recruiting thus far, because their recruits will have to replace multiple multi-year starters, including Antoine Winfield Jr., Carter Coughlin, Thomas Barber, Kamal Martin, and Winston DeLattiboudere. Cornerbacks Coney Durr and Benjamin St.-Juste and safety Jordan Howden return to mitigate some of the losses on defense, but Minnesota will have a new-look defensive front seven next season. Defensive coordinator Joe Rossi has his work cut out for him.

Florida Atlantic Owls

2019 Record: 11-3 (7-1, 1st C-USA East)
Postseason: W 52-28 vs SMU, Boca Raton Bowl
Final 2019 S&P+ Ranking: 40th
Record vs Power 5 (since 2010): 0-18
Returning Starters: 5 Offense, 4 Defense
Returning Production: 59% Offense, 43% Defense
Last Meeting: Minnesota 37, Florida Atlantic 3 (2008)

The good news: Lane Kiffin is no longer the head coach after opting to return to the SEC as the new head coach at Ole Miss, ending his three-year stint in Boca Raton.

The Owls’ receiving corps has been decimated by graduations, with their top five leading receivers all collecting their diplomas. Those five seniors accounted for 79% of the team’s receptions, 85% of their receiving yards, and 21 of their 23 receiving touchdowns from 2019. The offensive line also loses two starters, with left tackle Brandon Walton and center Junior Diaz both departing.

Florida Atlantic will also need to replace seven starters on defense, including three quarters of their defensive line and three quarters of their starting secondary after junior starting cornerback Pierre James decided to declare early for the NFL Draft.

The Owls have only ever beaten a Big Ten team once in their program history, and that was when the infamously incompetent Tim Brewster was standing on the opposite sideline.

The bad news: This will be a Fresno State-esque season-opening opponent for the Gophers, as the Owls won 10 games and were Conference USA champions last year. They’ll have a new head coach in Willie Taggart and lose a lot of talent on both sides of the ball, and that amount of uncertainty makes the Owls a challenging season-opening opponent to prepare for.

We do know that starting quarterback Chris Robison will be back under center. The transfer from Oklahoma led Conference USA a season ago with 3,396 passing yards, throwing 26 touchdowns and six interceptions. He’ll have familiar company in the backfield, as the Owls’ leading rusher Malcolm Davidson also returns after rushing for 711 yards and nine touchdowns as a freshman.

Junior linebacker Akileis Leroy is Florida Atlantic’s top returning defender and a potential candidate for Conference-USA Defensive Player of the Year after tallying 101 total tackles, 7.5 sacks, five forced fumbles, and three interceptions last season.

Tennessee Tech Golden Eagles

2019 Record: 6-6 (3-5, 5th Ohio Valley Conference)
Postseason: None
Returning Starters: 8 Offense, 8 Defense
Last Meeting: None

The good news: The Golden Eagles are an FCS program that hasn’t finished above .500 since 2011, when they ended the year with a 7-4 record and made it to the first round of the playoffs. That was their first and only postseason action since 1972.

The bad news: ...

Iowa Hawkeyes

2019 Record: 10-3 (6-3, 3rd B1G West)
Postseason: W 49-24 vs USC, Holiday Bowl
Final 2019 S&P+ Ranking: 20th
Road Record vs Minnesota (since 2010): 3-3
Returning Starters: 6 Offense, 5 Defense
Returning Production: 50% Offense, 56% Defense
Last Meeting: Iowa 23, Minnesota 19 (2019)

The good news: Three-year starting quarterback Nate Stanley graduates, having gone 3-0 record against Minnesota. Of the returning quarterbacks on the roster, only redshirt freshman Spencer Petras has even attempted a collegiate pass. Iowa will also need to replace two starters on the offensive line, as left guard Landan Paulsen graduated and right tackle Tristan Wirfs declared for the NFL Draft.

The Hawkeyes will need to rebuild (or reload) on defense. Three of their four starting defensive linemen will need to be replaced, including All-American defensive end A.J. Epenesa, who opted to leave early for the NFL. Leading tackler and senior linebacker Kristian Welch is gone. The secondary will also need to replace cornerback Michael Ojemudia and safety Geno Stone, who was their top defensive back last season.

The bad news: Iowa’s backfield has been absent a difference maker at running back since Akrum Wadley graduated. But Tyler Goodson turned heads as a true freshman, coming on strong late in the season to rush for 638 yards and five touchdowns. And while the Hawkeyes will be inexperienced under center, whomever gets the starting nod at quarterback will have weapons at his disposal, as their top four leading receivers all return. That includes senior Ihmir Smith-Marsette, who had a breakout game against USC in the Holiday Bowl, recording a rushing touchdown, a receiving touchdown, and a kickoff return for a touchdown.

And the areas where Iowa will have to holes to fill — offensive and defensive line — are typically where the Hawkeyes have have been able to consistently develop talent.

BYU Cougars

2019 Record: 7-6
Postseason: L 38-34 vs Hawaii, Hawaii Bowl
Final 2019 S&P+ Ranking: 60th
Record vs Power 5 (since 2010): 17-23
Returning Starters: 8 Offense, 8 Defense
Returning Production: 77% Offense, 62% Defense
Last Meeting: None

The good news: The Cougars’ top three wide receivers — seniors Micah Simon, Talon Shumway, and Aleva Hifo — are gone, having accounted for 46% of the team’s receptions, 45% of the team’s receiving yards, and 45% of the team’s receiving touchdowns.

On defense, BYU will need to replace three quarters of their starting secondary. Cornerback Dayan Ghanwoloku and safety Austin Lee are both significant losses. The former led all Cougar defensive backs in total tackles, and the latter wasn’t far behind. Sophomore cornerback D’Angelo Mandell is the lone returning starter.

The bad news: Underestimate the Cougars at your own peril. BYU is a season removed from beating Tennessee and USC. They even upset then No. 6-ranked Wisconsin in Camp Randall in 2018. Regardless of their record, the Cougers are going to be a tough out. Just look at their record against Power 5 opponents in the last decade alone.

Injuries at quarterback, running back, and offensive line led to a game of musical chairs at each position, but that also means the Cougars return a ton of experience across the board. Junior quarterback Zach Wilson would seem to be the favorite to start under center, although sophomores Baylor Romney and Jaren Hall both saw action sporadically. They’ll be operating behind an offensive line that had four underclassmen starters by season’s end.

BYU also spread the wealth on offense last season, in part due to injuries, with 21 players recording at least one carry and 19 players recording at least one reception.

All but one member of BYU’s defensive front seven will be back, led by linebacker Kavika Fonua, who led the team in total tackles with 83, in addition to three pass break-ups, two interceptions, one sack, and one forced fumble. Starting nose tackle Khyiris Tonga flirted with declaring for the NFL Draft before opting to return to BYU for another season. He was the top defensive lineman on what was an otherwise disappointing position group for the Cougars, but their hope is that Tonga can lead an experienced unit to more success in 2020.

@ Maryland Terrapins

2019 Record: 3-9 (1-8, 6th B1G East)
Postseason: None
Final 2019 S&P+ Ranking: 96th
Home Record vs Minnesota (since 2010): 1-1
Returning Starters: 8 Offense, 4 Defense
Returning Production: 62% Offense, 51% Defense
Last Meeting: Minnesota 52, Maryland 10 (2019)

The good news: Mike Locksley will be in his second year as head coach at Maryland, and the Terps’ 3-9 finish represented the best season record in his head coaching career. He will move forward without top running backs Javon Leake and Anthony McFarland Jr., who both declared early for the NFL Draft after rushing for a combined 1,350 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2019. Quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome, who alternated under center with Josh Jackson for much of the season, has opted to transfer for his senior season. Maryland will also need to replace tight end Tyler Mabry and two starters on the offensive line.

Defensively, the entire starting defensive line is gone. All four were seniors. Linebacker Keandre Jones, the team’s sack leader, also graduates. Perhaps the biggest blow is in the secondary, where safety Antoine Brooks Jr. and cornerback Marcus Lewis depart. Brooks was the team’s leading tackler and arguably their top defender.

The bad news: I suppose it is possible Josh Jackson could recapture some of the magic from his freshman season at Virginia Tech. He hasn’t been terrible for Maryland, but he hasn’t been nearly effective enough to help them win games. And there is some talent at wide receiver, starting with leading receiver Dontay Demus Jr., who hauled in 41 receptions for 625 yards and six touchdowns as a sophomore. But very few playmakers emerged alongside him last season.

On the other side of the ball, the Terps are gambling on youth. All of their returning starters on defense were underclassmen a season ago. Linebacker Ayinde Eley was the best of them, notching 79 tackles, two fumble recoveries, and one interception.

(Re-reading that section again, I realized none of the “bad news” sounded all that “bad,” so I guess you could say I’m not very optimistic for Maryland.)

@ Wisconsin Badgers

2019 Record: 10-4 (7-2, T-1st B1G West)
Postseason: L 28-27 vs Oregon, Rose Bowl
Final 2019 S&P+ Ranking: 11th
Home Record vs Minnesota (since 2010): 4-1
Returning Starters: 6 Offense, 9 Defense
Returning Production: 62% Offense, 81% Defense
Last Meeting: Wisconsin 38, Minnesota 17 (2019)

The good news: The Badgers will need to rebuild their offense. Running back Jonathan Taylor has packed his bags and taken his 6,174 career rushing yards to the NFL, and I don’t know that Wisconsin has a back on the roster who can replicate his production. Wide receiver Quintez Cephus, who led the Badgers in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns, has also left for greener pastures. And three starters on the offensive line will need to be replace, as two graduated and one declared for the NFL Draft.

Wisconsin only graduates two starters on defense, but those two starters are linebackers Chris Orr and Zack Baun, who were two of the Badgers’ top three tacklers last season.

The bad news: As I mentioned already, Wisconsin only graduates two starters on defense. And while Orr and Baun may have been key cogs in their defensive front, the Badgers have never had a problem reloading at the linebacker position.

Starting quarterback Jack Coan returns after a solid first season under center, completing 69.6% of his passes and throwing for 2,727 yards and 18 touchdowns, with five interceptions. He had a particularly good game against the Gophers, finishing 15-of-22 for 280 passing yards and two touchdowns. He’ll have tight end Jake Ferguson back to target in the passing game.

Michigan Wolverines

2019 Record: 9-4 (6-3, 3rd B1G East)
Postseason: L 35-16 vs Alabama, Citrus Bowl
Final 2019 S&P+ Ranking: 10th
Road Record vs Minnesota (since 2010): 2-0
Returning Starters: 5 Offense, 6 Defense
Returning Production: 36% Offense, 49% Defense
Last Meeting: Michigan 33, Minnesota 10 (2017)

The good news: The Wolverines will need to rebuild on offense. The Shea Patterson era at quarterback has come to a close, and a competition between redshirt junior Dylan McCaffrey and redshirt sophomore Joe Milton awaits. The winner will line up behind a new-look offensive line, as four starters depart. Junior starting right tackle Jalen Mayfield is all alone. Wide receivers Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black — No. 3 and No. 4 in receiving yards for Michigan a season ago — are both gone as well, with the former declaring for the NFL and the latter entering the transfer portal.

Thankfully, starting linebacker Khaleke Hudson has graduated. You may remember his nightmarish performance against the Gophers in the Big House three years ago, but I’d understand if you’ve blocked it from your memory. The Wolverines lose Hudson and their other two starting linebackers to graduation. Safety Josh Metellus and cornerback Lavert Hill are also huge losses for Michigan in the secondary.

The bad news: It’s Michigan, so there is no shortage of talent at the skill positions. Leading receivers Ronnie Bell and Nico Collins both return, and sophomore Zach Charbonnet and junior Hassan Haskins will be back for the bulk of the carries at running back.

The entire front four on defense return, and because it is Michigan, I’m sure they have capable back-ups waiting in the wings to replace Hudson, Metellus, Hill, and the like.

@ Illinois Fighting Illini

2019 Record: 6-6 (4-5, 4th B1G West)
Postseason: L 35-20 vs Cal, Redbox Bowl
Final 2019 S&P+ Ranking: 61st
Home Record vs Minnesota (since 2010): 2-3
Returning Starters: 9 Offense, 6 Defense
Returning Production: 86% Offense, 71% Defense
Last Meeting: Minnesota 40, Illinois 17 (2019)

The good news: Color me skeptical of Illinois’ surge near the end of last season. The Illini seemed to be marching towards the end of Lovie Smith’s tenure as head coach before pulling the upset against Wisconsin to start a four-game winning streak to save their season. The last three wins in that streak were against Purdue, Rutgers, and Michigan State, which is admittedly progress for Illinois, but not all that impressive. They ended the regular season with a close-ish loss to Iowa before getting boat raced by a 3-9 Northwestern team. I can’t say I’m sold on the 2019 season representing a breakthrough, but we shall see.

Lovie will have to find a new workhorse at running back, as leading rushers Reggie Corbin and Dre Brown both depart. He’ll also need to replace both starting defensive tackles and find someone to fill the shoes of middle linebacker Dele Harding, who led the team with a staggering 154 total tackles in 2019 to go along with three interceptions and three forced fumbles. Defensive tackles Jamal Milan and Tymir Oliver were the lone standouts on an otherwise underwhelming defensive line, so their absence up the middle is likely to be felt.

The bad news: Nearly everyone on offense, aside from Corbin, Brown, and starting right guard Richie Petitbon, returns. Perhaps the biggest returner for Illinois in 2020 is starting quarterback Brandon Peters, who was reasonably successful in his first season with the Fighting Illini after transferring from Michigan. He’ll have the benefit of a full arsenal of targets in the passing game, led by the return of leading receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe.

Illinois will certainly miss Harding at linebacker, but seniors Jake Hansen and Milo Eifler both return ready to build from solid seasons. Free safety Stanley Green graduates, leaving a big hole in the secondary, but he leaves behind a position with talent and experience. Whether cornerbacks Nate Hobbs and Tony Adams can consistently make good on their potential remains to be seen. Illini fans are certainly hoping to see more from the highly-touted Marquez Beason, who set to start at cornerback last season before being lost to injury during fall camp.

@ Michigan State Spartans

2019 Record: 7-6 (4-5, 5th B1G East)
Postseason: W 27-21 vs Wake Forest, Pinstripe Bowl
Final 2019 S&P+ Ranking: 42nd
Home Record vs Minnesota (since 2010): 3-0
Returning Starters: 8 Offense, 5 Defense
Returning Production: 43% Offense, 49% Defense
Last Meeting: Michigan State 30, Minnesota 27 (2017)

The good news: I don’t know whether this qualifies as good news or bad news, but the Mark Dantonio era in East Lansing is over. The Gophers were 1-5 against the Spartans during his coaching tenure, but the program has largely spun its wheels the last four years with a combined record of 27-24 since winning the Big Ten championship in 2015.

Whomever succeeds Dantonio will need to replace three-year starting quarterback Brian Lewerke. Following Lewerke out the door is leading receiver Cody White, who declared for the NFL Draft after amassing 66 receptions for 922 yards and six touchdowns as a junior. In fact, Michigan State loses their top three leading receivers from 2019, with wide receiver Darrell Stewart Jr. (49 receptions, 697 yards, four touchdowns) and tight end Matt Seybert (26 receptions, 284 yards, three touchdowns) both graduating.

The Spartans will need to rebuild on defense, with losses at every position group. All-American defensive end Kenny Willekes and a pair of starting defensive tackles exit up front. Behind them, linebackers Joe Bachie and Tyriq Thompson graduate, although the former saw his college career end a bit early due to a failed drug test. Junior cornerback Josiah Scott declared early for the NFL Draft, joining senior safety David Dowell in departing from the Michigan State secondary.

The bad news: The Spartans have holes at quarterback and wide receiver, but running back Elijah Collins will return as the workhorse on offense, having rushed for 988 yards on 222 carries as a redshirt freshman. The entire starting offensive line will be back and the unit as a whole retains a lot of game experience after enduring a rash of injuries in 2019, forcing them to use seven different starting combinations up front throughout the season.

Replacing Willekes will be a tough task, but Michigan State can at least count on senior Jacub Panasiuk to hold down one edge of the defensive line in his third year as a starter. The return of linebacker Antjuan Simmons is a big lift after he led the team with 90 total tackles as a junior. Xavier Henderson is back after seizing the starting strong safety spot as a sophomore and leading all Spartan defensive backs with 83 total tackles.

The Gophers also have not won in East Lansing since 2006.

Purdue Boilermakers

2019 Record: 4-8 (3-6, T-5th B1G West)
Postseason: None
Final 2019 S&P+ Ranking: 64th
Road Record vs Minnesota (since 2010): 0-4
Returning Starters: 9 Offense, 8 Defense
Returning Production: 76% Offense, 73% Defense
Last Meeting: Minnesota 38, Purdue 31 (2019)

The good news: All-Big Ten tight end Brycen Hopkins graduates after finishing the season as the Boilermakers’ second leading receiver with 61 receptions for 830 receiving yards and seven touchdowns.

That’s about it.

The bad news: The Boilermakers return a lot. When quarterback Elijah Sindelar went down with a broken clavicle, Purdue turned to redshirt freshman Jack Plummer and redshirt sophomore Aidan O’Connell. Both struggled with turnovers, throwing 12 interceptions combined over 10 games, but kept the Boilermakers’ passing game humming with 19 touchdowns through the air. With Plummer and O’Connell under center, Purdue averaged 245.8 passing yards per game.

Whomever is under center for the Boilermakers next season will have a receiver tandem to rival Minnesota’s combination of Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman from 2019. Rondale Moore, who was named Big Ten Receiver of the Year as a true freshman, missed the final eight games of his sophomore season with a hamstring injury, but he’ll be back to torch opposing defenses alongside David Bell. As a true freshman, Bell led Purdue with 86 receptions for 1,035 receiving yards and seven touchdowns, earning the Big Ten’s Freshman of the Year award.

The Boilermakers graduate one starter from an offensive line that included three underclassmen. Offensive line play was an issue for Purdue last season, and there is no guarantee that experience will solve their ineffectiveness, but I’ll take experience over the alternative if given the choice.

Brohm also cut loose defensive coordinator Nick Holt, and with good reason. His replacement, Bob Diaco, is not what I’d call a home run hire, but the mere fact that Holt is no longer on the sideline is probably a net positive for the Boilermakers.

Northwestern Wildcats

2019 Record: 3-9 (1-8, 7th B1G West)
Postseason: None
Final 2019 S&P+ Ranking: 91st
Road Record vs Minnesota (since 2010): 3-2
Returning Starters: 10 Offense, 8 Defense
Returning Production: 88% Offense, 80% Defense
Last Meeting: Minnesota 38, Northwestern 22 (2019)

The good news: Northwestern loses three starters on defense, including defensive end Joe Gaziano, who set the school record for career sacks. Joining him as he walks out the door are defensive tackle Alex Miller and cornerback Trae Williams.

The bad news: Like Purdue, Northwestern returns a lot. Quarterback was a revolving door for the Wildcats, yet somehow all four of their starting quarterbacks from 2019 are back for more. Leading rushers Drake Anderson and Evan Hull are back after having to claw for a combined 920 rushing yards and seven touchdowns as part of an anemic rushing attack. The Wildcats’ top three receivers all return, led by senior wideout Riley Lees, who amassed 51 receptions for a paltry 430 receiving yards and two touchdowns yet led the team in all three statistical categories. And all but one starter returns on the offensive line.

Perhaps the best news for Northwestern is that offensive coordinator Mick McCall has been shown the door after 12 seasons under head coach Pat Fitzgerald. The Wildcats fielded one of the worst offenses in the country last season, which prompted Fitzgerald to make a change and bring in Mike Bajakian from Boston College to rejuvenate that side of the ball.

Defensively, the Wildcats weren’t bad last season, but were frequently hung out to dry by their offense. The defense got a big boost for 2020 when starting linebacker Paddy Fisher opted to return rather than declare for the NFL. He will lead a linebacker unit that is quite possibly the strength of the Northwestern defense, with Fisher, Blake Gallagher, and Chris Bergin all representing the team’s top three tacklers from a season ago.

Replacing Gaziano on the defensive line will be tough, but the Wildcats also need to hope for a healthier season in the secondary. They were frequently banged up, but their three most consistent starters — Travis Whillock, J.R. Pace, and Cam Ruiz — all return. Ruiz, in particular, came on strong last season after stepping in for injured players at cornerback.

@ Nebraska Cornhuskers

2019 Record: 5-7 (3-6, T-5th B1G West)
Postseason: None
Final 2019 S&P+ Ranking: 55th
Home Record vs Minnesota (since 2010): 3-1
Returning Starters: 10 Offense, 5 Defense
Returning Production: 92% Offense, 59% Defense
Last Meeting: Minnesota 34, Nebraska 7 (2019)

The good news: The Husker defense will require a serious overhaul next season, with all but one member of the starting front seven walking out the door. That includes leading tackler and linebacker Mohamed Barry, who was the leader of the defense a season ago. The lone returning starter is senior linebacker Colin Miller, although reserve Will Honas was a key contributor last season. But the entire starting defensive line will need to be replaced.

The fewest departures are in the secondary, where only cornerback Lamar Jackson is graduating.

Scott Frost is still the head coach and holds a 9-15 overall record in two seasons.

The bad news: This could be good news, depending on your personal opinion, but virtually everyone on offense returns for Nebraska. Quarterback Adrian Martinez will be in his third year under center, and will have wide receivers J.D. Spielman and Wan’Dale Robinson to target in the passing game. Running back and leading rusher Dedrick Mills is back, rushing behind the same five starting offensive linemen. But Frost would be the first person to tell you that his players last season were not up to his own high standards, so again, it is open to interpretation whether having those same players back is a positive or a negative.

Frost also signed recruiting classes in 2018 and 2019 ranked No. 18th and No. 20th nationally, respectively, according to 247 Sports, so I assume that has to pay off at some point, right?

Overall Thoughts

The schedule is front-loaded, with matchups against Iowa, Wisconsin, and Michigan by mid-October. So whereas few people knew what to make of Minnesota before November last season, we shouldn’t have to wait nearly as long to know what head coach P.J. Fleck has in his fourth year at the helm. In the non-conference slate, I’m less concerned about Florida Atlantic than others, not at all concerned about Tennessee Tech, and very wary of BYU. The Cougars are pesky enough not to be taken lightly. But I really think the tale of this season will be told in those first seven games. There are enough unknowns in the back half of the season — Michigan State, Purdue, Northwestern, and Nebraska come to mind as teams that, to me at least, could go one of two directions — that taking care of business early will be paramount.