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Breaking down the Gophers' opponents: Miami (Ohio)

College football is just around the corner -- we’re less than six weeks away from the Gophers’ season opener on Aug. 30. So, with that in mind, I’ll take a look at Minnesota’s 12 opponents by asking five questions to a beat writer covering that team. Today’s installment is Game 3, Miami (Ohio).

Opponent: Miami (Ohio)

When, where: Sept. 15, 2:30 p.m., TCF Bank Stadium. TV: BTN

2017 record: 5-7, 4-4 Mid-American Conference

Opponent’s beat writer: David Clark, Cincinnati Enquirer

Five Questions for David Clark on Miami of Ohio

1. Miami returns eight starters on both offense and defense. How much optimism is there for the RedHawks entering the season after last year’s 5-7 finish?

There's optimism particularly about some of Miami's offensive weapons, but there was optimism entering last season as well (MU was expected to contend for a MAC East title) before the team ultimately disappointed. Receiver James Gardner gives them good reason to be optimistic after 927 yards and 11 touchdowns last season. Gardner was first-team all-conference and is considered an NFL draft prospect. Gus Ragland is an experienced starting quarterback who has shown flashes of brilliance and strong ability to improvise/scramble. Running backs Kenny Young and Alonzo Smith bring additional excitement to the offense. 

Miami's experience at offensive line also gives the RedHawks a great reason to like their chances -- with five returning starters led by left tackle Jordan Rigg and center Danny Godlevske, who was named to the Rimington Spring Watch List.

There's also experience throughout Miami's defensive line and linebackers -- led by leading tackler Brad Koenig. There's less experience, however, in MU's secondary.

2. The RedHawks struggled in tight games last year, going 0-5 in games decided by one possession. What is the key to reversing that trend?

Decision-making and execution. Ragland has looked very sharp at times and in 2016-17 returned from injury with MU 0-6 and sparked an improbable winning streak and bowl appearance (and the RedHawks actually should have beaten Mississippi State in their bowl game but lost by a point). MU became the first team in FBS history to start the regular season 0–6 and finish the regular season at 6–6, largely because of Ragland's 17 touchdown passes and only one interception. But Ragland's magic touch was less consistent last season, and perhaps the most heartbreaking of the five games MU lost by one possession was a 21-17 loss to Cincinnati. It's a nonconference regional rivalry played annually that dates to 1888, and Miami looked finally ready to beat Cincinnati -- after 11 straight losses in the rivalry -- leading 17-6 in the fourth quarter and 17-14 with less than 3 minutes left. But an ill-advised return out of the end zone put MU at its own 5, and three plays later, Ragland threw a pick-six with 1:42 left. The RedHawks will benefit from sound execution late in games to reverse the trend.

3. Will Ragland keep the starting quarterback job over Michigan graduate transfer Alex Malzone?

I'd have to think it's Ragland's job as long as he stays healthy and doesn't struggle. I guess you never know. Someone must've encouraged Malzone that MU would be a great opportunity for him to engage in healthy competition. But Ragland has a lot of experience despite injuries and has endeared himself to fans by bouncing back from injuries, including an ACL. I'd be surprised if he's benched, barring a very slow start to the season.

4. The RedHawks will beat Minnesota if ... 

The experienced offensive line consistently wins its battles, creating opportunities for Young, Smith and Ragland to run and for Ragland to get the ball to Gardner. That said, it's tough to love the RedHawks' chances given their recent track record against the Big Ten and/or ranked teams: a 52-17 loss at No. 22 Notre Dame last season; a 45-21 loss at No. 17 Iowa in 2016; a 58-0 loss at Wisconsin in 2015; a 34-10 loss at Michigan in 2014; a 50-14 loss at Illinois in 2013; a 56-10 loss at Ohio State in 2012, etc. 

5. Minnesota will beat the RedHawks if ... 

The Golden Gophers can take advantage of a less experienced Miami secondary. The RedHawks will have a tough time replacing Tony Reid and Heath Harding. Harding was among the MAC's top defensive players and signed a free-agent deal with the Atlanta Falcons just after the draft. In addition, if Minnesota can neutralize the MU rushing attack and focus on shutting down Gardner, there's not much experience in the receiving corps beyond Gardner.

Looking for more on the upcoming college football season? Check out some previous posts:

Breaking down the Gophers' opponents: Fresno State



College football is just around the corner -- we’re exactly six weeks away from the Gophers’ season opener against New Mexico State on Aug. 30. So, with that in mind, I’ll take a look at Minnesota’s 12 opponents by asking five questions to a writer covering that team. Today’s installment is Game 2, Fresno State.

Opponent: Fresno State

When, where: Sept. 8, 6:30 p.m., TCF Bank Stadium. TV: FS1

2017 record: 10-4, 7-1 Mountain West; lost 17-14 to Boise State in MWC title game; defeated Houston 33-27 in Hawaii Bowl.

Opponent’s beat writer: Robert Kuwada, Fresno Bee

Five Questions for Robert Kuwada on Fresno State

1. Fresno State went from 1-11 to 10-4 in Jeff Tedford’s first year as coach and played in the Mountain West championship game. What was the key to the quick turnaround?

The easy answer is consistency of coaching, but there are a lot of factors that play into that. The players, I think, were ready for a change, a new direction and voice. That 1-11 came at the bottom of a consistent slide from 6-8 to 3-9 to 1-11. Their discipline and aptitude also were big, particularly with the turnaround on the defensive side of the ball, where allowed 320.6 ypg and 17.9 ppg from 415.1 and 30.9. There was some talent and some football players in the program. But the consistency of Jeff Tedford and that staff, that really was it. The accountability. The teaching. The confidence. The game planning. All of that was critical to 10-4.

2. Quarterback Marcus McMaryion quickly earned the starting job last year after transferring from Oregon State. What do you see as his potential in his second year as starter?

The thing about McMaryion, he didn't step foot on the practice field until after the first scrimmage in fall camp. He was in a catch-up mode all season. He would get a game plan and try to execute it. But the ‘why this?’ and ‘why that?’ and ‘what do I do if this or that happens?’ he didn't always have those answers. He also had to learn his receivers, how they run routes, how they come out of breaks, where you can and can't throw it. His first pick -- and he only threw five of them in 351 attempts -- happened because the receiver cut off a route and he was not at that point in the season able to anticipate it. He didn't have a great base in the offense. With a spring practice, a summer and a full fall camp, the expectation is he will have a better grasp of the offense and be much more adept at operating it. That should show in limiting mistakes and greater production in different parts of the field. Fresno State, for instance, was not a good third-down team last season (35.6 percent conversions, eighth in the league) and struggled in the red zone (54.7 touchdown percentage, eighth).

3. The Bulldogs defense returns seven starters but none on the defensive line. How big of a concern is that for the coaching staff?

That is a concern and it will be a big one on Sept. 8, given their history against Power Five programs. That's not pretty -- they've lost their past nine games and seven of them have come by 30 or more points, though they have played some good teams. There is a physical gap there for just about every Group of Five program. The No. 1s along the defensive line entering fall camp all got reps last season but will be making a significant jump to 40 or 50 snaps a game from 10 or 15, so there are a lot of questions to be answered.

4. Fresno State will beat Minnesota if …

I haven't looked much at Minnesota yet, but it’s going to have to get some quarterback play and I do know that is a big question there. Fresno State did a really nice job last season attacking quarterbacks and forcing mistakes. They'll give a lot of looks and don't figure to give Minnesota a lot of clues what it might see in an opener against Idaho. If they can force some turnovers and get some quick three-and-outs, I can see them winning.

5. Minnesota will beat Fresno State if …

That Power Five divide is something Fresno State has to overcome and until they do ... There were some hints last season that they could negate that issue. No. 1 Alabama and No. 4 Washington on the road in back-to-back weeks would crush just about anyone, but they played well in the second half at Seattle and carried that the rest of the season. They beat up San Diego State, which won at Arizona State and beat Stanford last season. They beat BYU, which always has a good number of older, physical players. They won the first of their two games against Boise State, which has been one the of the top Group of Five teams for years, and the difference in the second game wasn't physicality. Boise had a receiver run through coverage for a long TD. They also beat Houston in the Hawaii Bowl, and Houston has had some big wins over Power Five programs. But, we'll see ...

Looking for more on the upcoming college football season? Check out some previous posts:

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