MnB B1G Preview: Minnesota's schedule leaves them wide open for success

Jesse Johnson-US PRESSWIRE

It's that time of year again; time for Maize n Brew's Big Ten football preview! I'll be taking a look at everyone's schedule during this series. This week: the Minnesota Golden Gophers.

The Gophers had a relatively surprising and successful season in 2013, but lost a heart breaker to the Syracuse Orange in the Texas Bowl. With QB Philip Nelson first transferring to Rutgers, and then getting dismissed, Minnesota will need to rely on Mitch Leidner and some young receivers to jump to the next level in the Big Ten.

Who They Play in 2014

Date Opponent Will Minnesota Win or Lose?
8/28 Eastern Illinois Win
9/6 Middle Tennessee Win
9/13 @ TCU Toss-up
9/20 San Jose State Win
9/27 @ Michigan Lose
10/11 Northwestern Toss-up
10/18 Purdue Win
10/25 @ Illinois Toss-up
11/8 Iowa Toss-up
11/15 Ohio State Lose
11/22 @ Nebraska Toss-up
11/29 @ Wisconsin Lose

Key Games

Most Winnable: so far in this series, it's been pretty easy to pick the most winnable games, as they are usually some FCS school...or Purdue. So, let's change it up a little bit and pick a game that isn't either of those. The answer should probably be San Jose State. Okay, so that isn't much better than the other two, but the Gophers still came away with a 19 point win in 2013, even though David Fales threw for 439 yards and three touchdowns. Fales is gone and SB Nation's Bill Connelly covers what the Spartans face in 2014.

Guaranteed Loss: Ohio State. Minnesota hasn't beaten the Buckeyes since 2000, and last played them in 2010 to the tune of a 52-10 blowout. With the Gophers' defense not having faced Braxton Miller, this year's game is going to be quite the eye-opener for Minnesota. The question for Ohio State will still be on the defensive side of the ball; they weren't the best damn unit in the land last year, and things could be tough again in 2014, but not tough enough to lose to the maroon and gold.

The Road: visiting Michigan, Nebraska, and Wisconsin is a tall order for any team, but Minnesota's history with these programs does not inspire confidence for this season.

  • Michigan -- Minnesota took their second drive in last year's game and held the ball for 9:44 of the first quarter to tie the game at 7, but it didn't get any better than that, and there was no repeat of 2005. Even with Michigan's struggles down the stretch last year, and the questions going into 2014, don't expect a Gophers victory.
  • Nebraska --  the Huskers lost to Minnesota for the first time since 1960, but prior to that the Gophers had dominated the series, going 29-11 against Nebraska between 1900 and 1959. Will those days return for the Gophers? I doubt it. Even in last year's win the Huskers were still able to gain 189 yards on the ground. Ameer Abdullah will be back and possibly leading the league in rushing once again; he had 1,690 yards rushing and nine touchdowns last year, and he did it very quietly in the shadow of a guy like Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon.
  • Wisconsin -- with the realignment, Minnesota and Wisconsin will meet forever and always in the same division and in a battle to see who is the better of the states with the sausage- and cheese-based diet. Joel Stave had some ups and downs as the starting quarterback in 2013 and will face some competition from Tanner McEvoy, but the Gophers will need to worry about Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement in the backfield.

Toss-Ups

  • TCU -- the Horned Frogs were 4-8 last year and really struggled on offense. The defense is what made the team, and there are eight returning starters from that unit going into 2014. Former Texas A&M backup QB Matt Joeckel has taken his talents to Fort Worth, but it is a receiver's departure that may ultimately make Joeckel the starter in 2014. Although TCU has depth on D, it may be Minnesota's depth on the same side of the ball, and the Frogs' offensive issues, that decides the outcome.
  • Northwestern -- the Wildcats have edged out the Gophers in this series by a 7-5 margin, and only four games since 2000 have been decided by double digits. If that trend continues it is possible that Northwestern could win this one on the road. Or, Minnesota may want to make a statement after whatever it is that will happen against Michigan two weeks earlier.
  • Illinois -- I predicted that Tim Beckman will get Illinois to a bowl game this year; one of the ways to get there may be to beat Minnesota. In 2012, the last time these two played, Minnesota left Champaign with a 17-3 win. However, Illinois was able to muster only 101 yards on the ground, led by Donovonn Young's 42 yards. Young will be back, but Josh Ferguson is the team's leading rusher and scorer from the backfield.
  • Iowa -- Minnesota got steamrolled by Iowa's lines on both sides last year, and I'm not sure this year won't yield the same result. However, the Gophers are 2-1 in Minneapolis since 2010 and Floyd may really want to head back to the Cities where he can be truly appreciated. The Gophers will need to do a much better job up front and stop Jordan Canzeri and Mark Weisman. Do that, and a win is almost guaranteed.

The Outlook

Minnesota went 8-4 in 2013; if not for an inexplicable collapse against Syracuse in the Texas Bowl, a  nine-win season was there for the taking. Michigan State, Penn State, and Indiana fall off the schedule and are replaced with Purdue, Illinois, and Ohio State. TCU on the road isn't going to be a cupcake, but a win could break the season open. All in all, eight wins is the probable outcome in the regular season. Given who and where some of the games are this year, eight wins will not be a disappointing result. The schedule is wide open with winnable games for the Gophers. Factor in Minnesota's depth at running back, Leidner's ability to also run the ball, and guys like Drew Wolitarsky and Maxx Williams receiving and there is a recipe for Jerry Kill to take yet another step forward in the Big Ten.

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