Gophers football to face one of toughest 2023 schedules in the country

Coach P.J. Fleck, however, is challenging his players to view the upcoming games as opportunities instead.

By Randy Johnson Star Tribune

August 16, 2023

When Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck looks at his team's 2023 schedule, he sees opportunities.

When ESPN, through its Football Power Index computer model, looks at Minnesota's schedule, it sees the second-toughest slate in the land, behind only Ole Miss.

Opportunity and challenge collide for the Gophers beginning Aug. 31 against Nebraska at Huntington Bank Stadium. Along with starting the season with a Big Ten West Division foe, the Gophers will face the following in an ambitious schedule:

  • Half of the 2022 College Football Playoff field, with national semifinalists Michigan visiting the Gophers on Oct. 7 and Ohio State playing host to Minnesota on Nov. 18.
  • A trip to Iowa on Oct. 21, where the Gophers haven't won since 1999 and will face an opponent Fleck has yet to defeat in six tries.
  • A matchup with a coach that's never lost to Minnesota: Bret Bielema of Illinois (and formerly of Wisconsin) on Nov. 4 at home.
  • A trio of nonconference opponents who played in bowl games last year. That includes a highly anticipated trip to North Carolina on Sept. 16, with its hot-shot quarterback, Drake Maye.
  • "We presented it to [the players] in January, basically, and said, 'Hey, listen, this is the second-most opportunistic schedule in America,'" Fleck said. "That's the way that our team has been talked to since January and what we've been preparing for."

    Here's a game-by-game look at the schedule:

    • August 31

      vs. NEBRASKA

      The skinny: The Cornhuskers are rebuilding under new coach Matt Rhule after the failed Scott Frost era. Rhule turned around Temple and Baylor but was a combined 3-21 in his debut seasons.

      Did you know? Since joining the Big Ten in 2011, Nebraska is 5-7 vs. the Gophers.

      Gophers win probability: 55%. Minnesota has won four in a row vs. the Huskers, the past three each by a TD.

    • September 9


      The skinny: The Eagles (9-4 with a bowl win last year) rely heavily on RB Samson Evans, an Iowa transfer who rushed for 1,166 yards and 15 TDs last year.

      Did you know? Since 2017, Eastern Michigan has defeated Illinois, Purdue and Rutgers of the Big Ten.

      Gophers win probability: 75%. A home loss to Bowling Green in 2021 should keep the Gophers wary of any Mid-American Conference team.

    • September 16


      The skinny: This is a game that fans have circled: a road contest against a Power Five opponent that features a Heisman Trophy candidate in Tar Heels QB Drake Maye (38 TD passes, 308.6 yards per game as a freshman in 2022). Expect plenty of Maroon and Gold in Chapel Hill.

      Did you know? The Gophers and North Carolina have never met.

      Gophers win probability: 45%. The UNC defense can be had. Heels allowed 30.8 points per game last year.

    • September 23


      The skinny: Even before reports of hazing in the program cost longtime coach Pat Fitzgerald his job, the Wildcats faced long odds to contend in the Big Ten West. They’ll try to circle the wagons under interim coach David Braun.

      Did you know? The Wildcats averaged 13.8 points per game last season, ranking 128th in FBS.

      Gophers win probability: 80%. Minnesota has outscored Northwestern 72-17 in their past two meetings.

    • September 30

      vs. LOUISIANA

      The skinny: The Ragin’ Cajuns (6-7 with a bowl loss in 2022) are picked to finish third in the Sun Belt’s West Division. Fresno State transfer Ben Wooldridge (15 TD passes last year) is the likely starter at QB.

      Did you know? The last time the Gophers played a Sun Belt team, they needed a last-minute escape to edge Georgia Southern 35-32 in 2019.

      Gophers win probability: 80%. Must avoid the urge to look ahead to Michigan.

    • October 7

      vs. MICHIGAN

      The skinny: The Wolverines, who have won the Big Ten and made the College Football Playoff two years running, make their first visit since 2020.

      Did you know? Michigan returns its top QB (J.J. McCarthy), top two RBs (Blake Corum, Donovan Edwards) and five offensive linemen with starting experience.

      Gophers win probability: 15%. This will serve as a great measuring stick for the Gophers.

    • October 21

      at IOWA

      The skinny: This is the thorn in the Gophers’ side, the fly in their ointment. Minnesota has lost eight in a row to the Hawkeyes and last won at Kinnick Stadium in 1999 (a 0-10 skid). Now that Iowa has a capable QB in Michigan transfer Cade McNamara, the offense should improve.

      Did you know? The Gophers outgained Iowa 808-557 during the past two games but still lost.

      Gophers win probability: 45%. Should be another tight game. Maybe even bet the under.

    • October 28


      The skinny: Which Spartans team will show up? The one that went 11-2 with a Peach Bowl win in 2021, or the one that the Gophers embarrassed 34-7 last year?

      Did you know? The Spartans lost 17 players to the transfer portal, including starting QB Payton Thorne and standout WR Keon Coleman.

      Gophers win probability: 60%. Turnovers have been an issue with the Spartans, so the Gophers could pounce.

    • November 4

      vs. ILLINOIS

      The skinny: Bret Bielema’s rebuilding job with the Fighting Illini has been impressive, with an 8-5 record and bowl trip in his second year. Though Illinois will miss star RB Chase Brown, DLs Jer’Zhan Newton and Keith Randolph Jr. are NFL-caliber players.

      Did you know? Bielema is 9-0 against the Gophers, with the first seven wins coming with Wisconsin.

      Gophers win probability: 50%. Pivotal game for Minnesota, which has been limited to six and 14 points the past two meetings.

    • November 11

      at PURDUE

      The skinny: With Jeff Brohm off to Louisville, former Illinois defensive coordinator Ryan Walters takes over as coach. Texas transfer QB Hudson Card has the reins of the offense.

      Did you know? The Boilermakers will run the Air Raid offense, with former Texas Tech QB Graham Harrell as coordinator.

      Gophers win probability: 65%. The Gophers have won three of their past four at Purdue.

    • November 18

      at OHIO STATE

      The skinny: There’s never talent question for the Buckeyes, who will feature such standouts as WRs Marvin Harrison Jr. and Emeka Egbuka and RBs TreVeyon Henderson and Miyan Williams. The key: QB Kyle McCord quickly finding his form.

      Did you know? The Gophers have three wins in 26 visits to Ohio Stadium: 1940, 1949 and 2000.

      Gophers win probability: 15%. Minnesota hung with the Buckeyes before falling 45-31 in 2021.

    • November 25

      vs. WISCONSIN

      The skinny: This isn’t your father’s Badgers team, with new coach Luke Fickell emphasizing the passing game with SMU transfer QB Tanner Mordecai.

      Did you know? The Gophers have captured Paul Bunyan’s Axe in three of the past five years.

      Gophers win probability: 50%. The West Division title could be on the line.