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Minnesota Football: Breaking down the Gophers’ eight-game schedule

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Eight games in eight weeks. Let’s do this.

Penn State v Minnesota Photo by Adam Bettcher/Getty Images

Alright, let’s try this again, shall we? The Big Ten unveiled the third iteration of their fall football schedule on Saturday morning, and now we’ll take a closer look at the eight games the conference has slated for head coach P.J. Fleck and the Minnesota Golden Gophers.

The Little Brown Jug is on the line in the season opener

Personally, I love opening the season against Michigan at TCF Bank Stadium.

The Wolverines will debut new starting signal caller Joe Milton against the Gophers, but their rebuilding effort on offense extends beyond the quarterback position. Michigan needs to replace four starters on the offensive line, and at least two of their top four receivers from a season ago are gone. They could also be without wideout Nico Collins, who led the team with seven receiving touchdowns last year, after he opted out and signed with high-profile agent Drew Rosenhaus. No word yet on whether he plans to reverse his decision and return to Ann Arbor.

On the other side of the ball, Michigan returns their entire front four but graduated all three starting linebackers from a season ago, including leading tackler Khaleke Hudson. The secondary also needs to replace safety Josh Metellus and cornerback Lavert Hill, both of whom represent significant losses for the Wolverine defense.

Then there are the Wolverines’ well-documented struggles on the road. Under head coach Jim Harbaugh, Michigan is 1-6 on the road against ranked Big Ten opponents. And both teams were ranked in preseason polls, with Minnesota at No. 18 in the Coaches Poll and No. 19 in the AP Top 25. Michigan checked in at No. 15 and No. 16, respectively, in those polls.

The Gophers hit the road after the opener

Road trips in two of the first three weeks of the season are less than ideal, especially for a Minnesota team that started slow last season during the non-conference slate. But if you have to travel, there are much worse draws than Maryland and Illinois.

Maryland is a bit of a disaster. The Terps had six players opt out of the season back in August, including three starters, and it is unknown if any of those players will return. On top of that, Maryland loses their top two rushers and needs to replace two offensive line starters. Defensively, all four starting defensive linemen are gone, as is linebacker and sack leader Keandre Jones and two starters in the secondary, including leading tackler Antoine Brooks Jr.

The lone bit of good news from this offseason was the NCAA approving a waiver for Alabama quarterback transfer Taulia Tagovailoa to be immediately eligible.

As for Illinois, depends on how much you buy into last year’s late season burst (before getting boat raced by Northwestern in the regular season finale). They return a lot on both sides of the ball, and the Gophers are 1-2 in their last three trips to Champaign.

Purdue is the trap game

Sandwiched between Iowa at home (Nov. 7) and a trip to Camp Randall (Nov. 21) is a home date with Jeff Brohm’s Boilermakers. I may be in the minority, but I think Purdue could be a dangerous team this fall, even if All-American wide receiver Rondale Moore sticks to his decision to opt out.

The Boilermakers return eight starters on both sides of the ball, and even have a successor to Moore ready to go in the form of David Bell. He was electric as a freshman last year with 86 receptions for 1,035 receiving yards and seven touchdowns, earning the Big Ten’s Freshman of the Year award. If either redshirt sophomore Jack Plummer or junior Aidan O’Connell can seize the starting quarterback spot and cut down on turnovers, coupled with improvement from an offensive line returning four starters from last season, look out.

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.

Obviously the Iowa and Wisconsin games will likely decide who comes out on top in the Big Ten West, but I would caution against overlooking Purdue.

Some sense of normalcy in November

The Gophers won’t end the regular season against their traditional rival, but they will keep their traditional Thanksgiving date with the Badgers. Iowa and Nebraska also seem set to meet up again on Black Friday, although Friday kickoffs will not be officially announced until a later date.

Minnesota draws the Hawkeyes at home in Week 4, but by then first-year starting quarterback Spencer Petras will have had a chance to get his sea legs and establish a rapport with Iowa’s underrated receiving corps led by Ihmir Smith-Marsette. The Hawkeye defense will need to replace All-American defensive end A.J. Epenesa and a couple other starters, but I think we know by now that Iowa is more than capable of reloading on that side of the ball.

The road trip to Camp Randall will represent even more of a challenge for Minnesota, even if the Badgers must replace running back Jonathan Taylor, leading receiver Quintez Cephus, and three starters on the offensive line. The Wisconsin defense that held the Gophers in check last season is largely intact, save for linebackers Chris Orr and Zack Baun.

Not quite a December to remember

Minnesota closes out the season at home against Northwestern and on the road against Nebraska, but who knows what to expect from either of those teams.

The Wildcats lose three key starters on defense, but that is the extent of their losses from a season ago. They return four quarterbacks who each earned at least one start last season, but Indiana transfer Peyton Ramsey joins the fray as the clear favorite after passing for 2,454 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2019. Leading rushers Drake Anderson and Evan Hull are both back, in addition to the Wildcats’ top three receivers from a season ago.

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.

And then there is Nebraska. All but one member of the starting front seven on defense exited this offseason, in addition to cornerback Lamar Jackson. The losses aren’t quite as steep on the offensive side of the ball, led by third-year starting quarterback Adrian Martinez, leading rusher Dedrick Mills, freshman phenom wide receiver Wan’Dale Robinson, and all five starting offensive linemen from last season. But head coach Scott Frost would be the first person to tell you that his players last season were not up to his own high standards, so it is open to interpretation whether having those same players back is a positive or a negative.

Is this the season Frost breaks through? Eh, probably not.