This Gophers football season has a backloaded slate, with five tough opponents — Iowa, Michigan, Nebraska, Northwestern and Wisconsin — to finish the season. What will P.J. Fleck’s first Gophers team look like after three-plus hours wrestling the Badgers on Nov. 25, with 12 games behind them?
That requires guesswork, and the guesses this month have been all over the map, with USA Today forecasting a 4-8 mark with two Big Ten wins, to Athlon Sports’ J.P. Scott having the Gophers starting 8-0 and winning the Big Ten West.
We don’t know the answer, but we do know how we can all start that guesswork, by taking a game-by-game look at what’s ahead.
Fleck brought the “Row the Boat” mantra to Minnesota, and in less than a week we’ll begin to see if this boat can float for the 12 weeks between Buffalo on Thursday and Wisconsin at TCF Bank Stadium in late November.
Aug. 31 vs. Buffalo, 6 p.m.
The skinny: Lance Leipold, who won six Division III titles in eight years as coach of Wisconsin-Whitewater, has found the going tough at Buffalo. The Bulls might have bottomed out last year, going 2-10 and 1-7 in the Mid-American Conference.
The boat floats if: Conor Rhoda and Demry Croft are efficient. That’s the biggest thing fans should want to see from the co-starters at QB in a game in which the Gophers are favored by 26½ points. Fleck’s Western Michigan team throttled the Bulls 38-0 last year. And, oh yeah, he still could have some motivation from his first season at WMU, when Buffalo spanked his Broncos 33-rip.
The boat sinks if: Buffalo hangs with the Gophers for more than the first half.
Sept. 9 at Oregon State, 9 p.m.
The skinny: Though the Beavers closed 2016 with back-to-back wins over Arizona and Oregon, they still finished 4-8. They should be better in coach Gary Andersen’s third year.
The boat floats if: The Gophers, who rallied to beat OSU 30-23 in Minneapolis last year, hold Beavers running back Ryan Nall in check and put sufficient pressure on JUCO QB transfer Jake Luton.
The boat sinks if: Playing in front of a hostile crowd is too big of a moment for Rhoda and Croft.
Sept. 16 vs. Middle Tennessee
The skinny: This might be the trap game in the Gophers’ nonconference schedule, because the Blue Raiders can score, and receiver Richie James (105 catches, 1,625 yards, 12 TDs in 2016) might be the best skill player they face before the Big Ten season.
The boat floats if: The Gophers control the ball with RBs Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks and pressure Blue Raiders QB Brent Stockstill.
The boat sinks if: Middle Tennessee turns it into a shootout with James frolicking against a young Gophers secondary.
Sept. 30 vs. Maryland
The skinny: The Terrapins have been a trendy pick to make a leap into the top four in the Big Ten East, and a No. 18-ranked recruiting class should have them on the rise — eventually. But it’s tough to forget how the Gophers rolled to a 31-10 win at College Park last year.
The boat floats if: Smith and Brooks combine to surpass 200 yards again.
The boat sinks if: Speedy Terps RB Ty Johnson gets anywhere near his 9.1-yard average per rush from 2016.
Oct. 7 at Purdue
The skinny: The Boilermakers love to pass, and that only will increase under new coach Jeff Brohm, whose Western Kentucky team surpassed 50 points eight times last year.
The boat floats if: The Gophers rattle Purdue QB David Blough, who threw 21 interceptions in 2016.
The boat sinks if: Minnesota struggles to score against a Boilermakers defense that surrendered 38.2 points per game last year.
Oct. 14 vs. Michigan State
The skinny: A year ago, the Spartans were coming off a Big Ten title and berth in the College Football Playoff. Then the bottom fell out, with seven losses after a 2-0 start, a 3-9 finish and later three players being charged with sexual assault.
The boat floats if: The Gophers strike early against a team coming off back-to-back-to-back games against Notre Dame, Iowa and Michigan.
The boat sinks if: Spartans running back LJ Scott does his best Le’Veon Bell impersonation.
Oct. 21 vs. Illinois
The skinny: The Gophers have won five of the past six in the series, and that trend should continue on Homecoming. Illini coach Lovie Smith is in his second year of a massive rebuilding project.
The boat floats if: The Gophers’ run game wears down an inexperienced Illinois defensive line.
The boat sinks if: The Illini get three takeaways like the Gophers did in a 40-17 romp last year.
Oct. 28 at Iowa
The skinny: The Hawkeyes have been a particular thorn in the Gophers’ side, winning four of the past five and holding the U to 13 points or fewer three times in that span.
The boat floats if: The Gophers get just enough offense to win back Floyd of Rosedale.
The boat sinks if: The Hawkeyes keep Rhoda and/or Croft to a completion percentage of less than 40 while shutting down Minnesota’s run game.
Nov. 4 at Michigan
The skinny: When we last saw the Gophers play Michigan, the U let 12 precious seconds tick away and saw a stuffed QB sneak on the game’s final play end a shot at a Halloween night upset in 2015. Now, it’s Fleck’s turn to match wits with Jim Harbaugh.
The boat floats if: The Gophers somehow steal one — remember Gary Russell’s 61-yard run to set up the winning kick in 2005? — and bring the Little Brown Jug back to Minneapolis.
The boat sinks if: No sunken ships today. Chalk up this game at the Big House as a learning experience, regardless of outcome.
Nov. 11 vs. Nebraska
The skinny: Over the past four years, the Gophers and Cornhuskers have had remarkably similar records, with Minnesota going 31-21 and Nebraska 33-19. They’ve also split the past four in the series.
The boat floats if: The Gophers avoid turnovers, control the line of scrimmage and catch the Huskers looking ahead to games against Penn State and Iowa.
The boat sinks if: Huskers QB Tanner Lee lives up to his NFL draft expectations and Eden Prairie’s JD Spielman torments his home-state team.
Nov. 18 at Northwestern
The skinny: The Wildcats have been the swing game for the Gophers over the past five years, with the winner posting eight or more victories and the loser hovering around .500.
The boat floats if: The Gophers keep Wildcats RB Justin Jackson in check, as they did last year (90 yards).
The boat sinks if: Wildcats QB Clayton Thorson keeps the U’s defense honest enough for Jackson to do damage.
Nov. 25 vs. Wisconsin
The skinny: For 13 consecutive years, Wisconsin has walked away with Paul Bunyan’s Axe. If Fleck ends this trend, Gophers fans just might give him a pass on wearing that Badgers T-shirt as a youngster.
The boat floats if: The Gophers do what they couldn’t in the past three meetings: hold on to a first-half lead.
The boat sinks if: The streak reaches 14 in dominant fashion.