The schedule gods have smiled upon the Gophers in 2019. Favorable is one way to put it, with coach P.J. Fleck’s team avoiding Big Ten East powerhouses Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State.
Sure, the West is essentially a shot in the dark, and a treacherous November still looms. But without squinting too hard, an optimistic fan could see a scenario where Minnesota is among the division leaders heading into the Nov. 9 home game against Penn State.
“If we keep building upon what we did last year against Wisconsin,” senior defensive lineman Carter Coughlin said, “… when we finished really strong as an entire team, offense and defense, we should be really, really good this year.”
ESPN ranks the Gophers’ strength of schedule 54th of 130 FBS teams. The only Big Ten teams with “easier” slates, according to that measure, are Nebraska, Indiana and Illinois.
That said, expectations are still scattered for Minnesota (7-6 last year), with some assuming a near-bottom finish in the West and others projecting 10 wins as feasible. Here’s a look at the Gophers’ docket:
Aug. 29 vs. South Dakota State
The Jackrabbits went 10-3 last year, winning two FCS playoff games before losing to North Dakota State in the semifinals. But SDSU lost several key players, including star quarterback Taryn Christion.
Hype scale: Two out of five Tyler Johnson one-handed catches
Sept. 7 at Fresno State
Fresno, Calif., is a land between Los Angeles and San Francisco known for subterranean gardens and a 3-foot-long burrito. But its college football team should maybe usurp those. The Mountain West favorite, coming off last year’s 12-2 finish, could easily trip up the Gophers and prove a dangerous early opponent, as the Bulldogs almost did in the fourth quarter of last year’s 21-14 Gophers victory.
Hype scale: 3 feet of a 5-foot long burrito
Sept. 14 vs. Georgia Southern
This game will come at a key decisionmaking time for Fleck before making redshirt calls and solidifying his strongest lineup heading into the Big Ten season. With the Eagles’ short but chaotic FBS history — they lost 10 games in 2017 but won 10 a year later — this should be just the right level of opponent to work out the kinks.
Hype scale: One of five Daniel Faalele rushing touchdowns
Sept 28 at Purdue
The (real) opener
Both teams benefit from an early bye week in order to prepare for this conference starter. The Boilermakers might be out one quarterback and several other offensive starters from last year, but they still have sophomore receiver Rondale Moore, who set a school record for 2,215 all-purpose yards as a true freshman.
Hype scale: Three of five oars for boat rowing
Oct. 5 vs. Illinois
Illinois remains the lowliest team in the West, but in a 4-8 season last fall, the Illini still handed the Gophers a 55-31 beatdown. Illinois will sport a new signal-caller but return senior running back Reggie Corbin, who smoked the Gophers last year with touchdowns of 77 and 72 yards in his 213-yard game.
Hype scale: Two of five Lovie Smith beards
Oct. 12 vs. Nebraska
The (other) revenge
The Cornhuskers ended a 10-game losing streak, dating to 2017, and garnered their first victory under coach Scott Frost in a 53-28 drubbing of the Gophers a year ago. Now, Nebraska is many pundits’ pick for West champion. The Gophers will have to watch for sophomore quarterback Adrian Martinez, who set a school record by averaging 295 yards of total offense per game as a freshman.
Hype scale: Four of five bits of broken chair
Oct. 19 at Rutgers
The Scarlet Knights went 1-11 in 2018. One year later, and the outlook isn’t much better. But they do have home-field advantage. Coach Chris Ash has plenty of holes to fill on offense and defense, and he’s potentially on the hot seat with a 7-29 record in his three seasons.
Hype scale: One of five pork rolls/Taylor hams
Oct. 26 vs. Maryland
The Terrapins’ run game has stymied the Gophers in recent history, posting nearly 600 yards the past two seasons combined. Maryland has a new coach in Mike Locksley and will have a new quarterback as well, likely Virginia Tech graduate transfer Josh Jackson.
Hype scale: Three of five turtles
Nov. 9 vs. Penn State
A second bye week will have the Gophers and Nittany Lions fresh for November. Running back Miles Sanders and quarterback Trace McSorley are gone, and yet the Nittany Lions are still top contenders in the East. Sophomores such as quarterback Sean Clifford and running back Ricky Slade could fill those holes as part of a youth movement.
Hype scale: Three of five “We Are” chants
Nov. 16 at Iowa
The Gophers haven’t won in Iowa since 1999. They’ve also lost six of the past seven meetings. And Iowa sports senior quarterback Nate Stanley, who averaged 219.4 passing yards per game last year, and defensive lineman A.J. Epenesa, a former five-star recruit who notched 10½ sacks as a sophomore last season.
Hype scale: Four of five pigs named Floyd from Rosedale
Nov. 23 at Northwestern
The Wildcats won the West last year but still seem overlooked. Not so for Fleck, though, who routinely praises Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald. Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson should take the reins from graduated Clayton Thorson, who was a fifth-round draft pick for the Eagles.
Hype scale: Four of five meows
Nov. 30 vs. Wisconsin
The (other) rivalry
The Gophers ended a 14-year drought in the battle for the Axe last year, beating the Badgers at their stadium for the first time since 1994. But running back Jonathan Taylor is back after rushing for 168.8 yards per game last year. The Badgers will have a new quarterback after Alex Hornibrook’s transfer to Florida State, and the team recently reinstated receiver Quintez Cephus after sexual assault allegations.
Hype scale: Five of five cheeseheads