Yes, the Gophers are young. They’ll be starting true freshman Zack Annexstad at quarterback, and he’s one of 60 freshmen (true or redshirt) that make up 53.1 percent of Minnesota’s roster, the most among FBS schools.
And yes, coach P.J. Fleck’s debut as Gophers coach didn’t exactly wow the masses. A 5-7 record, a 2-7 Big Ten finish and an offense that was, frankly, among the nation’s worst by season’s end all combined to dampen enthusiasm and raise skepticism.
But as the 2018 campaign approaches with next Thursday’s season opener against New Mexico State, there is reason to believe things will get incrementally better for the Gophers. Compared with last year, they have more talent, they’re more familiar with Fleck’s system and, most importantly, they appear to be more bought-in to the program.
Will all of that translate into a better record? That’s to be determined, but there are paths to at least six victories and bowl eligibility. We’ll see if the Gophers can find one.
Aug. 30 vs. New Mexico State
New Mexico State earned its first bowl appearance in 57 years. Now, the Aggies are living life as an independent after being kicked out of the Sun Belt.
The Gophers win if … They take care of the football and the secondary asserts itself. The Gophers should look better offensively in this opener than they did in last year’s 17-7 victory over Buffalo.
The Gophers lose if … Lightning strikes twice. In 2011, an Aggies team that finished 4-9 stunned the Gophers 28-21 in Jerry Kill’s first home game as coach. Kill had a roster of leftovers from Tim Brewster’s reign of error, and it showed as New Mexico State rolled up 421 yards of offense.
Sept. 8 vs. Fresno State
In coach Jeff Tedford’s debut, the Bulldogs improved from 1-11 to 10-4 and a berth in the Mountain West title game. Fresno State played at Washington and at Alabama last year, so a trip to Minneapolis shouldn’t be intimidating.
The Gophers win if … Their defense can keep Bulldogs QB Marcus McMaryion in check. The graduate transfer from Oregon State went 9-2 for Fresno as a starter last year.
The Gophers lose if … They can’t establish the ground game and keep Fresno State’s offense off the field.
Sept. 15 vs. Miami (Ohio)
The RedHawks have been streaky lately, winning six games in a row in 2016 and losing four of five during last year’s 5-7 campaign.
The Gophers win if … They at least contain, if not stop, RedHawks standout receiver James Gardner, a 6-4 senior who caught 11 TD passes last season.
The Gophers lose if … They take Miami lightly. Minnesota’s last two games vs. the MAC have been tight (17-7 over Buffalo last year, 10-7 over Kent State in 2015). Fleck, a former MAC coach, knows the danger.
Sept. 22 at Maryland
The Terrapins are a mess, and don’t expect coach DJ Durkin to keep his job in the wake of offensive lineman Jordan McNair’s death following a May workout.
The Gophers win if … True freshman QB Zack Annexstad shows poise in his first road start. Fleck said he won’t have a short leash with Annexstad, and there are a lot of tougher road trips than College Park.
The Gophers lose if … Maryland effectively circles the wagons amid all the controversy, and the athletes from Durkin’s solid recruiting classes have matured.
Oct. 6 vs. Iowa
The Hawkeyes should contend in the Big Ten West. They return a solid QB in Nate Stanley and a matchup problem in 6-5 tight end Noah Fant.
The Gophers win if … They can put pressure on Stanley. The junior from Menomonee, Wis., passed for 26 TDs with six interceptions last year. In his worst game last year, a 38-14 loss to Wisconsin, he was sacked four times and went 8-for-24 for 41 yards. Carter Coughlin and Co., this is your challenge.
The Gophers lose if … Their offense dries up again vs. the Hawkeyes. In four of the past six meetings, the Gophers have scored 13 points or fewer.
Oct. 13 at Ohio State
Even with the turmoil that led to Urban Meyer’s three-game suspension, the Buckeyes still are a Big Ten, if not national, title threat. Though they lose QB J.T. Barrett, Dwayne Haskins should be a capable replacement with plenty of weapons.
The Gophers win if … All the stars align. The talent gap between the teams is huge, but hey, Lake Placid in 1980 did happen.
The Gophers lose if … Everything follows script. The Buckeyes have won 26 of the past 27 meetings in this series.
Oct. 20 at Nebraska
The Gophers’ 54-21 thrashing of the Huskers helped push coach Mike Riley out the door, and now favorite son Scott Frost is back to return Nebraska to its glory days. That might not happen right away, but better days are ahead in Lincoln.
The Gophers win if … They withstand the pressure that Frost’s frenetic offense puts on an opponent. Nebraska will push the pace and spread the field, so the Gophers must tackle in space.
The Gophers will lose if … Frost is as good a turnaround artist as he was at Central Florida, and freshman QB Adrian Martinez is as good as advertised.
Oct. 26 vs. Indiana
The Hoosiers make their first visit to TCF Bank Stadium for this TV-driven Friday night contest. Indiana figures to be a .500-ish team, and this could be a swing game in its quest for bowl eligibility.
The Gophers win if … They don’t have a hiccup like they had in their home loss to Maryland last year. Lose to the Hoosiers, and a bowl game becomes much harder to reach.
The Gophers lose if … Indiana’s offense, which competed well against Ohio State and Michigan last season, is better than expected with an unsettled QB situation.
Nov. 3 at Illinois
The Fighting Illini have posted 3-9 and 2-10 records in coach Lovie Smith’s two seasons in Champaign. We’ll see if his youth movement pays off.
The Gophers win if … They own first and second down on offense. Illinois was last in the Big Ten in rushing defense last year.
The Gophers lose if … They overlook Illinois on the road. Minnesota has five Big Ten road games, and wins at Maryland and Illinois would appear to be needed to gain bowl eligibility.
Nov. 10 vs. Purdue
Boilermakers rallied from a eight-point halftime deficit to beat the Gophers last year, leading to a bowl game for Purdue and denying one to Minnesota. Feels like another swing game.
The Gophers win if … They create turnovers and fully capitalize on them. That lack of execution doomed them last year.
The Gophers lose if … They don’t take advantage of a Boilermakers defense that returns only four starters. WR Tyler Johnson needs a big game against a Purdue secondary likely to start two freshmen at cornerback.
Nov. 17 vs. Northwestern
A 39-0 blowout loss on a cold, windy, sleety day in Evanston was the low point of Minnesota’s 2017 season. It won’t be easy for the Gophers to flip the result, because Northwestern returns a veteran team with Big Ten West title aspirations.
The Gophers win if … They can withstand a Northwestern defense that features standout linebackers Paddy Fisher and Nate Hall and shut-down corner Montre Hartage.
The Gophers lose if … They can’t pressure Wildcats QB Clayton Thorson, a four-year starter operating behind a veteran line.
Nov. 24 at Wisconsin
The Badgers have kept Paul Bunyan’s Axe for 14 consecutive years, and odds are that will extend to 15. Wisconsin, No. 4 in the AP preseason poll, has College Football Playoff hopes.
The Gophers will win if … Alex Hornibrook is in a giving mood. The knock on the Badgers QB is his propensity to throw interceptions — he had 15 last year. Takeaways are fuel for upsets.
The Gophers will lose if … They get pushed around by Wisconsin’s offensive line and Heisman Trophy hopeful Jonathan Taylor runs wild.