The Gophers’ 2020 season has had three incarnations already. But the one released Saturday should be the keeper.
After scrapping two previous versions of the schedule because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Big Ten’s newest attempt has the Gophers opening at home, Oct. 24 against Michigan, and closing an eight-game regular season on Dec. 12 at Nebraska.
Minnesota’s two border rivalry games will come Nov. 14 vs. Iowa in Minneapolis, and Nov. 28 vs. Wisconsin in Madison.
“We wanted to make the season meaningful,” Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez said, “ … [and] very unique.”
Each football team must begin daily testing for COVID-19 by Sept. 30, and any player who tests positive will be out of game action for 21 days. That could be especially daunting with a schedule that has no bye weeks for relief.
This version of the Gophers’ schedule looks a bit more forgiving than short-lived version 2.0, which the Big Ten announced on Aug. 5 only to cancel six days later. That one had the Gophers opening with Michigan State, Michigan, Iowa and Wisconsin — all in September.
Now the Gophers build more gradually toward some of those rivalry games, though the countdown to kickoff is already ticking toward the battle for the Little Brown Jug.
“We’re very excited about having a date that we know we can look forward to,” Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said Wednesday on Big Ten Network, “and get back on the field here soon.”
Oct. 24 vs. Michigan
Fleck has had only one chance to play for the Little Brown Jug, and that was a 33-10 loss in Ann Arbor in 2017. Now the Gophers are coming off an 11-2 finish and have several key players back on offense but numerous new faces on defense. Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines have a new quarterback in Joe Milton, a turned-over offensive line and stout defensive line.
Oct. 31 at Maryland
The Terrapins had quite a few players opt out of this fall season, including quarterback Josh Jackson. Alabama transfer Taulia Tagovailoa, Tua’s younger brother, is immediately eligible to play, though, and could fill that hole. That could be a fruitful pairing with second-year coach Mike Locksley, who was Alabama’s offensive coordinator in 2018 before taking the head coaching job and worked with the elder Tagovailoa.
Nov. 7 at Illinois
The Illini came up with big victories in 2019 against Wisconsin and Michigan State, which helped them to a bowl game for the first time since 2014. Quarterback Brandon Peters returns, offering a rare opportunity for offensive stability for a Lovie Smith team. The Gophers lost badly at Illinois two years ago, 55-31, but repaid the favor 40-17 at home last season.
Nov. 14 vs. Iowa
One of only two losses for the Gophers last year came in Iowa City. But 2020 will bring a new quarterback for Iowa with Nate Stanley graduated, while defensive end A.J. Epenesa is on to the NFL. Longtime coach Kirk Ferentz always seems to keep his team consistent despite the moving parts. However, his culture came into question this summer when an external review found evidence of racial bias and bullying against Black players.
Nov. 21 vs. Purdue
Purdue coach Jeff Brohm and Fleck are known for trading barbs in the media, and last year’s game only fueled that. Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan set a Big Ten player record, completing 21 of 22 passes, 95.5%, while the defense knocked out Purdue’s quarterback and All-America receiver Rondale Moore on the same play. Moore opted out for this season, and it’s uncertain whether he will try to return, à la Gophers All-America receiver Rashod Bateman.
Nov. 28 at Wisconsin
The battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe is back on Thanksgiving weekend. The Badgers have to be the favorite in the West, though playing at Camp Randall without fans could level the playing field a bit. Wisconsin lost some offensive production, including running back Jonathan Taylor, but the defense should be as staunch as ever. This rivalry has gone back and forth in recent seasons, and the Gophers will want revenge for missing out on last year’s championship thanks to the Badgers.
Dec. 5 vs. Northwestern
A December home game in the Twin Cities ought to be interesting, with the average high temperature of 30 degrees and average low of 16 for that day. And the competition likely won’t heat anything up. The Wildcats have a new quarterback in Indiana grad transfer Peyton Ramsey, but they don’t appear much more talented than last year’s 3-9 team.
Dec. 12 at Nebraska
Nebraska was the loudest Big Ten member to criticize the conference when it canceled fall sports, everything from exploring playing outside of the conference to players filing a lawsuit. Well, the conference had the last laugh, condemning Nebraska to possibly the toughest schedule, including opening the season at juggernaut Ohio State. By the time the Cornhuskers host the Gophers, they might be thoroughly beat down.
Dec. 19 Champions Week
The top teams in the East and West divisions will compete in the Big Ten Championship Game while the rest of the teams will play one more cross-division game against their like seeds (the second-place teams in both divisions will play each other, for example). The conference has said it will try to avoid rematches.