Sandell: Analyzing Gophers' schedule, will they take a step forward?
Editor's note: In time for the Gophers' season opener against Eastern Illinois, Nate Sandell breaks down Minnesota's schedule and what one might expect to see in Jerry Kill's fourth season in charge.
Eastern Illinois - Aug. 28
This isn't the same Eastern Illinois squad that rose to the No. 2-seed in the FCS playoffs last season. Standout quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo has gone on to the NFL and head coach Dino Babers has moved to Bowling Green, replaced by first-time head coach Kim Dameron.
Changes aside, Eastern Illinois is still not a team to scoff at, coming in ranked No. 11 in the preseason FCS poll. The Gophers could struggle early in the opener as their offense works out the kinks, but they shouldn't have too much trouble pulling off a feel-good start to the season.
Middle Tennessee State - Sept. 6
Middle Tennessee State, helmed by nine-year head coach Rick Stockstill, should offer up more of a challenge than Eastern Illinois. The Blue Raiders have a strong stable of varied running backs, which will serve as a good early test for Minnesota's defensive front lines. But the Gophers' defense, specifically the secondary, is geared to cause trouble for first-year starting QB Austin Grammer. How QB Mitch Leidner and the Gophers' pass game develops from Game 1 to Game 2 will be an area to watch.
At Texas Christian University - Sept. 13
This is where things get interesting. TCU is the primary threat on the Gophers' nonconference slate, and likely the only roadblock that could prevent an eventual third straight 4-0 start. Given Minnesota's brutal schedule in the season's final month, this game could prove to be a major difference maker in the Gophers' bid for a more preferred bowl destination.
Minnesota has gone 5-12 away from TCF Bank Stadium, including a pair of bowl losses, in Kill's first three seasons. It may take the Gophers' best road showing of the Kill era so far to take down the Horned Frogs in Fort Worth. Returning nine starters to the second-best defense in the Big 12 last season, TCU is out to redeem itself after stumbling to a disheartening 4-8 record in 2013. The effectiveness of Leidner and Co. once again could be a deciding factor.
San Jose State - Sept. 20
Just like last season, the Gophers close out the nonconference with a home matchup against the Spartans. Even though star QB David Fales threw for 439 yards and three touchdowns, Minnesota still held San Jose State in check by dominating in the run game (353 rushing yards) in Leidner' fill-in start - the first of his career.
The Spartans are now without Fales, who is currently a rookie with the Chicago Bears. That leaves SJSU's offense searching to form a new identity. The Spartans may be in for some early growing pains, with a showdown against Auburn awaiting them one week prior to heading to Minneapolis. If the Gophers' can lock down control of the game's tempo once again, they should remain in the driver's seat in this one.
Big 10 schedule
At Michigan - Sept. 27
Part of the Gophers' vision for forward progress this season is coming up with rivalry game wins. They get their first chance right away in Big Ten play. The Gophers are 2-8 in trophy games under Kill, and haven't won the Little Brown Jug since 2005 at the Big House.
Nine years later, could Minnesota pull off another stunner in Ann Arbor? Michigan has backtracked under Brady Hoke, going from 11-2 in 2011 to 7-6 last season. Coordinator Doug Nussmeier has been tasked with the revitalization of the Wolverine offense, which despite its yearlong struggles anchored a 42-13 rout of the Gophers in 2013. However, it's clear Michigan is not the Big Ten power it once was.
The Gophers have been outscored 100-13 in two trips to Ann Arbor during the Kill era, but this is their best chance in a while to end its losing streak against the Wolverines (six straight losses) and notch that elusive "signature road win." Still, beating a Michigan team that is trying to prove last 7-6 season was a fluke on its home turf is an enormous task.
Northwestern - Oct. 11
The Wildcats' once-promising 2013 campaign flamed out - seven straight losses - thanks in part to several crushing close defeats. Their attempt at redeeming themselves hasn't gotten off to the start they hoped. Running back Venric Mark was suspended and eventually transferred during fall camp. Plus, top receiver Christian Jones was lost to a season-ending knee injury.
All is not lost for the Pat Fitzgerald's Wildcats, but amid the flurry of off-field distractions they've faced, they are certainly vulnerable. Northwestern's visit to TCF Bank Stadium kicks off a three-game stretch in which the Gophers could provide some positive padding for their Big Ten record.
Purdue - Oct. 18
If the Gophers want to continue to improve their reputation in the conference, defeating the sub-par Boilermakers at home is a must. Again, this is a vital point in the Gophers' season as it presents their best chance to rack up wins before the difficulty level increases considerably in November. It can't get much worse for the Boilermakers, who are recovering from the worst season in program history (1-11). Coach Darrell Hazell's second season might not be as rough, but Purdue is still in for an uphill climb.
At Illinois - Oct. 25
Sandwiched between games at Wisconsin and Ohio State, as well as a bye week, the Illini's meeting with the Gophers may be critical to their hopes of reaching the six-win plateau for the first time in three seasons under Tim Beckman. This is the type of winnable game the Gophers are now at a point where they need to prove they can handle convincingly. The best case scenario is Minnesota leaves Champaign with a respectable win streak - the perfect confidence booster heading into their final four games.
Iowa - Nov. 8
The fight for the Floyd of Rosedale serves as the start to a four-game gauntlet. Despite losing three high-impact starters at linebacker, the Hawkeyes boast a formidable squad and could become a strong contender for the Big Ten West title.
Iowa overpowered Minnesota in its trip to TCF Bank Stadium last year. That loss left a lasting sting for the Gophers. Minnesota is in position to add a rivalry trophy to its case this year. The best opportunity to do so is at Michigan or home against the Hawkeyes. A win over Iowa would likely resonate more with postseason bowl committees.
Ohio State - Nov. 15
After a three-year reprieve, the Gophers are once again set for a showdown with Ohio State. Braxton Miller's injury came as a crushing blow for the Buckeyes, who entered fall camp with national title aspirations. But while they've certainly lost some of their luster, Urban Meyer's Buckeyes still carry plenty of intrigue, especially when it comes to whether or not they can make up for the loss of their star.
This game is looks more prime for an upset by the Gophers than it did a few weeks ago. Could this be a letdown game for Buckeyes? It comes a week after their highly-anticipated faceoff with Michigan State, which prior to Miller's injury was projected to determine the winner of the Big Ten's East division. Any extra edge the Gophers could get on Senior Day would be a plus. Like Ohio State, Minnesota will have to rally quickly after facing Iowa - a matchup that is sure to be taxing emotionally and physically, regardless of the end result.
At Nebraska - Nov. 22
For the second straight time, the Gophers' visit to Memorial Stadium comes on Senior Day in Lincoln. It won't be Tom Osborne appreciation day as it was when the Gophers were trounced 38-14 in 2012, but upsetting the Cornhuskers in their home finale would is a long shot for Minnesota, though Iowa did it in 2013 in a 38-17 win. The Cornhuskers, with running back Ameer Abdullah and receiver Kenny Bell back on offense, look ready for another march towards a possible nine-win season.
At Wisconsin - Nov. 29
Paul Bunyan's Axe, the prize in the longest running rivalry in the FBS, has been in Wisconsin's possession for the past decade. The Badgers don't appear ready to give it up yet. A win in Madison, where the Gophers haven't won since 1994, would easily be Minnesota's biggest victory in years. But Wisconsin might have too much going for them by season's end to let the Gophers slip by. However, the stakes could be raised considerably for both sides, depending on how the West division standings and postseason picture shake out by the season finale.
Progress has been and continues to be made by Kill's Gophers, but it remains to be seen if they can take a step forward this season. While their schedule doesn't make it easy, it also presents several opportunities for the head-turning wins they seek. This seems to be the year the Gophers could grab a key rivalry victory. Minnesota's matchup against Michigan is probably the best bet, though it will be played at the Big House.
Minnesota is still a work in progress, albeit with the potential to catch a few teams off guard. This season may be a case in which the Gophers win seven games, one less than they did in 2013, but the year is still considered a success. That's only possible if they can pull off at least one signature victory (Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio State), while showing improvements on the offensive end and in their overall competitiveness.
The Gophers' first four games of Big Ten play are their most critical. All four are winnable, and if they find a way traverse that stretch successfully they could be in position to match or better their 2013 win total. That's a big if.