Minnesota’s first six games should be fairly easy (with one possible exception).
Non-Conference: Games 1-3
They start on Thursday night with MAC opponent Buffalo. I haven’t found any pundits expecting the Bulls to be particularly competitive even within their conference. Next up is a rematch with Oregon State. The Beavers played their first game this weekend and were thumped 58-27 by Colorado State. The Gophers won this match-up in their opener a year ago, in a game marred by three targeting fouls and subsequent ejections for the maroon-and-gold. I expect the same result this season, as well as more discipline. Finally, the Gophers will face Middle Tennessee State. The Blue Raiders are expected to be a competitive C-USA team, and have quite a few starters returning from an eight-win team in 2016. This will likely be the most challenging non-conference game on the slate, but I expect Minnesota to prevail.
Big Ten Play Begins: Games 4-6
First up in conference play is Maryland. A lot of experienced upperclassmen are returning from a unit that eked out six wins a year ago. However, three of those were non-conference wins against Howard, FIU, and Central Florida. The other three were against Purdue, Rutgers, and a disappointing Michigan State team. Even assuming the Terps have made strides this season, the Gophers should be able to win this game.
October starts off with a road game at Purdue. The Boilermakers won just three games a year ago and gave up 26 points or more to every opponent except Eastern Kentucky and Nevada. They allowed over 40 points in exactly half of their games. (Believe it or not, quarterback David Blough was the Big Ten’s leading passer last season with 3,352 yards and 25 touchdowns.) I don’t see any reason to expect a significant improvement over last year’s team, or a change in last year’s result.
Finally, we get to the first truly questionable game on the docket: a home match-up with Michigan State. “Disappointing” barely scratches the surface of the 2016 Spartans. A team that was expected to challenge Michigan and Ohio State for the division instead went 3-9. Very few starters from last year are returning, and their two-deep lists a fair number of underclassmen. Sometimes that’s good news when you’re talking about an underwhelming team. Time will tell. My guess is that the Gophers win this game, but I expect it to be close.
After Minnesota’s first six games, I expect them to have a 6-0 record. Worst-case scenario is a 5-0 start with a close loss to Michigan State. The second-half slate is, as usual, far tougher than the first half. I’ll have a look at those opponents later in the week.