The Gophers football team opened its past two seasons at TCF Bank Stadium against an opponent from a Power Five conference.
In 2015, it was No. 2-ranked TCU, which left with a 23-17 victory. Last year, the Gophers rallied to beat Oregon State 30-23. Those Thursday night games, especially the one against the Horned Frogs that drew 54,147, created a late-summer buzz.
But those nonconference matchups against opponents from other marquee conferences — the ACC, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC — will take a hiatus after the 2017 season. When the Gophers visit Oregon State of the Pacific-12 on Sept. 9, it will be Minnesota’s last nonconference game against a big school until 2020.
Ending will be a run of playing at least one such opponent — and previously one from a Bowl Championship Series conference — in eight of nine seasons. The Gophers are 3-5 in those games, beating Syracuse twice and Oregon State once, while losing twice to USC and TCU and once to California.
Scheduling is tricky business, and for the Gophers the job of working out the details belongs to John Cunningham, a deputy athletic director. Cunningham consults with AD Mark Coyle and coach P.J. Fleck, and their goal is to find three games that will complement the nine-game Big Ten schedule.
“We just want three really good games that make sense, move our program forward, create some excitement for our fans, but at the same time we recognize how difficult the Big Ten schedule is,” Cunningham said. “So you have to balance it out. That’s the challenge.”
The Gophers’ nonconference schedules in 2018 and ’19 — with all but one opponent scheduled before Coyle’s tenure — won’t make hearts skip a beat. The Gophers are host to New Mexico State, Fresno State and Miami (Ohio) in 2018, and in 2019 are home against FCS-level South Dakota State, travel to Fresno State and return home to face Georgia Southern.
The 2018 home schedule is a notable drop-off, as the Gophers’ Big Ten home games — Iowa, Indiana, Purdue and Northwestern — feature only the Hawkeyes as a marquee draw.
But don’t expect the Gophers to buy out any of their nonconference opponents in 2018 or ’19. “We’ll roll with what we’ve got and feel good about that,” Cunningham said.
Schedule ramps up
The nonconference slate beefs up after 2019. Last fall, the Gophers, with Coyle as AD and Tracy Claeys as coach, added home-and-home series with major independent Brigham Young (2020 and ’25), Colorado (2021 and ’22) and Mississippi State (2026 and ’27). It’s the first time the Gophers have scheduled a Southeastern Conference opponent since Vanderbilt in 1959.
Minnesota has openings, possibly for a Power Five team, in 2023 and ’24.
“It’s just a matter of us trying to find the right fit,” Cunningham said.
What direction will the Gophers go under Fleck? At Western Michigan, he didn’t shy away from Power Five foes. The Broncos’ schedule this year includes trips to USC and Michigan State, and between 2013 and ’16 Western Michigan played Ohio State, Virginia Tech and other big schools, mostly on the road.
An attractive opponent would be Notre Dame, which on Monday announced a deal with Wisconsin for a home-and-home series. In addition, Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick said his goal is to schedule a Big Ten opponent every year. Might the Gophers fit that bill?
“We’ll take all inquiries and see if it matches up, check with Coach Fleck, check with Mark,” Cunningham said, avoiding comment on specific teams.
However, the window for the first Gophers-Irish matchup since 1938 might not be open soon. Notre Dame already has scheduled Michigan (2018, ’19), Northwestern (2018), Wisconsin (2020, ’21), Ohio State (2022, ’23), Purdue (2024, ’25) and Michigan State (2026, ’27).
Don’t forget the Dakotas
What fans can expect occasionally is an opponent from the Football Championship Subdivision. The Big Ten, which discouraged playing FCS foes, announced in July it will allow such a matchup in years a team has only four conference home games.
That could open the door to the Gophers playing, say, FCS powerhouse North Dakota State again.
“If we’re looking for an FCS team and it’s a really good fit, we certainly would look regionally for those games,” Cunningham said.
The Gophers’ recent history against regional opponents isn’t good. They have lost two consecutive games to NDSU, lost to a 4-7 South Dakota team in 2010 and edged South Dakota State in 2009. That history and the high risk/low reward aspect of playing a FCS team, Cunningham indicated, wouldn’t prevent scheduling one of those opponents.
“It don’t think it’s a concern,” he said. “You’re mostly just looking for how Coach Fleck feels about the game, how Mark Coyle feels about the game.”