GOPHERS OFFENSE VS. HORNED FROGS DEFENSE
TCU’s defense usually makes it tough on anybody, but the Horned Frogs have serious questions, especially in the back seven. TCU is the only team in the country whose linebackers — true freshman Mike Freeze and junior Sammy Douglas — never have started a college game. The Gophers’ Mitch Leidner is a dual-threat quarterback who was reduced to a passer with limited mobility after spraining his left knee MCL the week before last year’s game in Fort Worth. Leidner also struggled when fully healthy in late-season losses to Ohio State and Wisconsin. Here, he gets a clean slate and another chance to prove himself on the national stage, but he’ll be without two stalwarts from last year, Maxx Williams and David Cobb. Advantage: TCU.
The Gophers were strong on special teams last year and have all the key pieces back — punter Peter Mortell, kicker Ryan Santoso, punt returner Craig James and kick returner Jalen Myrick. But TCU has excellent special teams, too. Kicker Jaden Oberkrom is the nation’s active leader in career field goals (58) and hit on 16 of his final 18 attempts last season. Senior punter Ethan Perry ranked eighth in the nation in punts inside the opponent’s 20-yard line (45.3 percent). Advantage: Even.
PLAYER TO WATCH
TCU wide receiver Kolby Listenbee ran the 100-meter dash in 10.03 seconds in June, good for a seventh place in the NCAA outdoor track and field meet. He had a breakout junior season in 2014, with 41 receptions for 753 yards (18.4 average) and four touchdowns. Gophers senior cornerback Eric Murray helped limit Listenbee to two catches for 25 yards last year, but Listenbee gives the Horned Frogs a constant threat to go with Josh Doctson, one of the nation’s top receiving prospects for the 2016 NFL draft.
TCU crushed Iowa State 55-3 to cap last year’s regular season, yet still fell from No. 3 to No. 6 in the College Football Playoff rankings. Rather than complain about missing the four-team playoff, TCU took out its frustrations on Ole Miss with a 42-3 rout in the Peach Bowl. Ole Miss, which had climbed to No. 3 earlier in the season, gained only 129 yards in that game, or 2.0 per play. After a 12-1 finish, TCU returns 10 offensive starters but must replace six of its top seven tacklers on defense.
GOPHERS DEFENSE VS. HORNED FROGS OFFENSE
QB Trevone Boykin and his lightning-fast receivers get most of the attention, but the Horned Frogs can hurt teams on the ground, too. Aaron Green rushed for 992 yards last season, averaging 7.1 yards per carry, the third-highest mark in Big 12 history. The Gophers have one of the best secondaries in the Big Ten, if not the country, but they allowed 4.77 yards per rush last year, which ranked 92nd in the country. Two keys here for Minnesota will be having defensive tackle Scott Ekpe and middle linebacker Cody Poock back from their respective ACL surgeries. Those two could be difference makers against the run. The Gophers must contain Boykin as a rusher. He had 12 carries for 92 yards against them last year, to go with his 258 yards passing. Advantage: TCU.
No coach can be sure how his team will perform in a season opener, especially on the road. TCU’s Gary isn’t certain, even with all those starters back on offense. And the pressure on the Horned Frogs is palpable. A Big Ten, SEC or Pac-12 team might be able to shake off an early season loss and still make the playoff. But with no conference title game, the Big 12 has left its teams with no margin for error, as TCU and Baylor learned last season, as one-loss teams. If Minnesota grabs some early momentum and gets the crowd rocking, things could snowball, even in the 80-degree heat. Advantage: Gophers.
TCU has questions on defense, but history says Patterson’s teams specialize in overcoming those. Minnesota might frustrate Boykin early, to keep things close into the second half. But the Horned Frogs have too much offensive firepower to stay down for long.