ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit unveiled his college football predictions Wednesday and made the Gophers his surprise pick to win the Big Ten West.
Minnesota went 6-7 last year, with six losses coming against 10-win teams. This year’s schedule is considerably easier with no TCU, Ohio State or Michigan. But there are plenty of skeptics outside Dinkytown. The Gophers were picked to finish fifth in the West in the Big Ten preseason media poll. Las Vegas puts their over-under at 6.5 wins. Athlon picked the Gophers to go 6-6. Even Gophers coach Tracy Claeys has tempered the easy schedule talk.
“We don’t have as many so-called big names on the schedule, but we do have five conference road games,” he said. “Having to go on the road and win in the Big Ten isn’t easy.”
With the same quarterback, most top skill-position players and a similar defense, this theoretically should mean more wins.
Seasons often snowball, and with softer slate to start, it’s not hard to picture a 7-2 start, or possibly better. But the final three opponents — Nebraska, Northwestern and Wisconsin — defeated Minnesota by a combined 106-46 last year.
With the season starting one week from Thursday, here’s a game-by-game look:
Game 1 | Sept. 1 vs. Oregon State
Projected line: Gophers by 13.
Gophers’ win probability percentage: ESPN: 70, SBNation: 78.
About the Beavers: Former Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen went 2-10 in his first season at Oregon State, and Las Vegas gambling outfit Bovada has the Beavers over-under at 3.5 wins. Utah State transfer Darell Garretson takes over at QB for a team that ranked 115th in scoring offense last year. The Beavers were better against the run than the pass, but ranked 114th in scoring defense. Oregon State will be improved but not enough to pull a Week 1 road upset.
Game 2 | Sept. 10 vs. Indiana State
Projected line: Gophers by 24.
Gophers’ win probability percentage: ESPN: 94, SBNation: 92.
About the Sycamores: Coach Mike Sanford took Indiana State to the second round of the FCS playoffs in 2014, but getting back will be difficult. The Sycamores went 5-6 last year, including a 38-14 loss at Purdue. QB Matt Adam, an all-conference selection last year, has been ruled academically ineligible. The Gophers should cruise, heading into an early bye week. Claeys said didn’t like having an early bye, at first, but now says the timing will help the team weigh key decisions about redshirts.
Game 3 | Sept. 24 vs. Colorado State
Projected line: Gophers by 11.
Gophers’ win probability percentage: ESPN: 84, SBNation: 84.
About the Rams: In their first season under coach Mike Bobo, the former Georgia offensive coordinator, the Rams won their final four regular-season games and finished 7-6. QB Nick Stevens returns, but WR Rashad Higgins left early for the NFL. The Gophers needed overtime to defeat Colorado State 23-20 last year in Fort Collins. With the Gophers coming off a bye, this one should be easier at home.
Game 4 | Oct. 1 at Penn St.
Projected line: Penn State by 9.
Gophers’ win probability percentage: ESPN: 19, SBNation: 33.
About the Nittany Lions: Penn State plays its Big Ten opener at Michigan one week earlier. Stakes are high entering coach James Franklin’s third season. Former Gophers offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover is coaching a Penn State offensive line that surrendered 39 sacks last season. With QB Christian Hackenberg in the NFL, Penn State will turn to sophomore Trace McSorley. The Gophers won the last meeting 24-13 in 2013, but this is their first trip to Happy Valley since 2009.
Game 5 | Oct. 8 vs. Iowa
Projected line: Iowa by 6.
Gophers’ win probability percentage: ESPN: 33, SBNation: 56.
About the Hawkeyes: They are the defending Big Ten West champs and are favored to win the division again, with QB C.J. Beathard and CB Desmond King among the standout returnees. Iowa got pummeled 51-14 in its last visit to TCF Bank Stadium two years ago, but the Hawkeyes held off the Gophers 40-35 last November to improve to 10-0. How good is this Iowa team? A good indicator will come Sept. 17 against North Dakota State.
Game 6 | Oct. 15 at Maryland
Projected line: Maryland by 1.
Gophers’ win probability percentage: ESPN: 45, SBNation: 51.
About the Terrapins: D.J. Durkin, the former Michigan and Florida defensive coordinator, takes over a Maryland squad that was better than last year’s 3-9 mark indicated. The Terps allowed 34.4 points per game, and their minus-18 turnover margin ranked among the worst in the nation. Senior QB Perry Hills will guide an up-tempo offense. The Gophers lost their only previous game against Maryland, 17-7 in the 1977 Hall of Fame Bowl.
Game 7 | Oct. 22 vs. Rutgers
Projected line: Gophers by 6.
Gophers’ win probability percentage: ESPN: 62, SBNation: 78.
About the Scarlet Knights: Rutgers went 8-5 two years ago, but a slew of bad off-field news and a fall to 4-8 cost Kyle Flood his job. The Scarlet Knights hired former Ohio State defensive coordinator Chris Ash, who is revamping everything. They’ll have a spread offense, which will be a switch for junior Chris Laviano, who was recruited for a pro-style attack. This is the Gophers’ first game ever against Rutgers, and they picked it for homecoming.
Game 8 | Oct. 29 at Illinois
Projected line: Gophers by 4.
Gophers’ win probability percentage: ESPN: 49, SBNation: 57.
About the Fighting Illini: Lovie Smith’s hiring sure made things interesting. He has a senior gunslinger at QB, in Wes Lunt, and a former four-star tailback recruit, in Ke’Shawn Vaughn. The defensive coordinator is Hardy Nickerson, and his son, Hardy Jr., is an Illini linebacker who came as a graduate transfer from Stanford. Even if the Gophers are rolling by this point, they won’t overlook Illinois after getting upset 28-24 in Champaign two years ago.
Game 9 | Nov. 5 vs. Purdue
Projected line: Gophers by 13.
Gophers’ win probability percentage: ESPN: 60, SBNation: 78.
About the Boilermakers: Darrell Hazell’s seat is hot, with Purdue 6-30 overall and 2-22 in the Big Ten under his watch. “The most important people where the morale counts are in the locker room,” he said. “Our morale is off the chart.” A softer schedule might help, and getting middle linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley back from his ACL injury will improve the defense. But the Gophers should have little trouble beating Purdue for the fourth straight time.
Game 10 | Nov. 12 at Nebraska
Projected line: Nebraska by 10.
Gophers’ win probability percentage: ESPN: 17, SBNation: 32.
About the Cornhuskers: Tommy Armstrong Jr. and almost all the top skill players return to a potent offense. Eden Prairie grad JD Spielman has had a terrific camp and likely won’t redshirt. The Gophers barely could move Nebraska’s defensive line when they rushed for only 65 yards in a 48-25 home loss last year. But the Cornhuskers had wholesale changes on the D-line with Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine leaving for the NFL. The Gophers stunned Nebraska in 2013 and 2014. To do it again, they’ll need their best running game.
Game 11 | Nov. 19 vs. Northwestern
Projected line: Gophers by 1.
Gophers’ win probability percentage: ESPN: 49, SBNation: 62.
About the Wildcats: Six starters return for a stingy defense, including linebacker Antony Walker, arguably the Big Ten’s best player. But the pass rush won’t be the same without DEs Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson. Northwestern won 10 games despite the Big Ten’s worst scoring offense. The Wildcats still have RB Justin Jackson and QB Clayton Thorson. How badly did Northwestern dominate Minnesota last year? The Gophers lost 27-0 and never moved the ball inside the Wildcats’ 31-yard line.
Game 12 | Nov. 26 at Wisconsin
Projected line: Wisconsin by 13.
Gophers’ win probability percentage: ESPN: 20, SBNation: 39.
About the Badgers: Wisconsin looked vulnerable last year. The Badgers were only two-point favorites with RB Corey Clement injured heading to TCF Bank Stadium. Joel Stave threw a pick-six on the game’s first drive, but Wisconsin outscored the Gophers 28-7 the rest of the half and won the Paul Bunyan’s Axe for a 12th consecutive year. Stave is gone, but Clement is back. If the Gophers can slow Wisconsin’s running game, they finally might end this nightmarish streak.