The Big Ten announced revisions to the 2022 football schedule Monday morning, and the changes to the Golden Gophers’ conference slate charted a new path that Minnesota will have to navigate if they hope to bring home the program’s first Big Ten West division title.
The Gophers hit the road early in conference play
Minnesota fans were less enthused about a September date with the Hawkeyes, as that is a game that is won or lost in the trenches every year and would have been an early test for the Gophers’ new-look offensive and defensive lines. Well, the Iowa game has been pushed back to November, but this may be a case of be careful what you wish for.
Instead, the Gophers open up conference play on the road at Michigan State, followed by a home game against Purdue. After a bye week, Minnesota will make back-to-back road trips to Illinois and Penn State. After their home game against the Boilermakers on October 1, the Gophers won’t be back at Huntington Bank Stadium until October 29.
Originally, Minnesota would have opened the season with five consecutive home games, finishing out the year on the road for five of their final seven regular season games.
Michigan State and Purdue are tough early tests
Michigan State would seem to be a tough draw for the Gophers’ Big Ten opener after head coach Mel Tucker served notice last season that the Spartans are back, finishing with a 11-2 record and earning a 10-year, $95 million contract extension. The Spartans were also 6-0 at home.
That said, Doak Walker Award-winning running back Kenneth Walker III is off to the NFL, as is wide receiver Jalen Nailor. Michigan State will also need to replace tight end Connor Heyward and three starters on the offensive line. Defensively, the Spartans only lose two starters. They’ll present a stiff challenge for the Gophers right out of the gate in Big Ten play.
Purdue, even without wide receiver David Bell and defensive end George Karlaftis, will no doubt be a trendy pick to win the Big Ten West. They are coming off the program’s first nine-win season since 2003, spurred by upset wins over No. 2-ranked Iowa and No. 3-ranked Michigan State. The emergence of quarterback Aidan O’Connell, a former walk-on, was one of the driving forces behind their success, as the Boilermakers boasted the 5th-ranked passing offense in the country. Most of the offense will return next season intact, including running back King Doerue, three starting offensive linemen, and four of Purdue’s six top pass catchers.
It’ll be a test for what is shaping up to be a veteran secondary for Minnesota next season, led by safeties Jordan Howden and Tyler Nubin. Justin Walley has locked down a starting cornerback spot after a breakout freshman season and he’ll be joined by Abilene Christian cornerback and Western Kentucky slot corner Beanie Bishop. Getting pressure on O’Connell will be critical, and the Gophers will have to hope a defensive line sans Boye Mafe is up to the task.
November is sponsored by the Quadrangle of Hate
One thing is for certain: Minnesota will have a chance to win the Big Ten West in November or, at the very least, play the role of spoiler. Gone are road trips to Michigan State and Penn State. Those two dates have been replaced by a road game against Nebraska (Nov. 5) and a home game against Iowa (Nov. 19). The Gophers round out the month of November by hosting Northwestern (Nov. 12) and paying a visit to Wisconsin (Nov. 26).
Iowa and Wisconsin will be preseason contenders for the division crown. Nebraska is making a last-ditch effort to salvage Scott Frost’s tenure, hoping last season’s impressive 3-9 campaign and an overhauled offensive coaching staff can serve as a springboard to contention in the Big Ten West. I have my doubts about the state of Northwestern’s program at the moment. But it’s an even year, so count them out of the conversation at your own peril.
Personally, I didn’t have a preference as to when Minnesota should play Iowa, but something feels right about finishing the regular season with back-to-back rivalry games.