Minnesota’s second half schedule is, not surprisingly, considerably more difficult than the first. The good news is that the Gophers do avoid both Ohio State and Penn State in cross-divisional play.
Oct. 21 vs. Illinois
It gets off to an easy enough start with a home game against Illinois. The Illini struggled mightily last season and will have a young team. Unless they improve drastically in season two under coach Lovie Smith, this should be another conference win for Minnesota.
Oct. 28 @ Iowa
Next up is a trip to Kinnick Stadium. Minnesota battled hard in a 14-7 loss to Iowa a year ago. The Hawkeyes have a lot of experienced upperclassmen on the roster, albeit not at quarterback. They’re absolutely stacked on the offensive line and at linebacker. This is the first opponent with a good chance to stop the Gophers’ run game. Unless Minnesota can air it out more consistently and accurately than I expect, this will be their first loss of the season.
Nov. 1 @ Michigan
The Gophers escaped both Michigan and Ohio State on the schedule a year ago. No such luck this season. They avoid the Buckeyes, but have to make a trip to the Big House to face Jim Harbaugh’s squad. On the bright side, the Wolverines lost quite a few players to graduation and the NFL, including 10 starters on defense. The offensive line is thin as well. This could very well be a down year for Michigan, and while I’m predicting a Wolverine win, I wouldn’t be surprised if this game is a close one.
Nov. 11 vs. Nebraska
This is another game that, a year ago, was much closer than many expected as Minnesota fell 24-17. Nebraska has a lot of returning starters, and should be a good if not elite team in year three under coach Mike Riley. I hate to start the season by predicting a three-game losing streak for the Gophers, but…
Nov. 18 @ Northwestern
Barring injury, Northwestern should be pretty good this season. The Wildcats got off to a rocky start in 2016 by losing to Western Michigan, and finished a disappointing 6-6. Fifteen of last year’s starters are back, and a slightly easier schedule has me expecting to see Northwestern back in the neighborhood of seven or eight wins. However, I don’t think this will be one of them. Minnesota will rally after a tough stretch and get to eight wins.
Nov. 25 vs. Wisconsin
You know the saying- in a rivalry game, throw the records out the window. Minnesota actually led much of this game last season, until a 21-point fourth quarter gave the Badgers a 31-17 win. Like Northwestern, Wisconsin has a lot of starters back from a squad that played in the Big Ten Championship a year ago. The game is in Minneapolis, but I regret to say that Paul Bunyan’s Axe will remain in Madison for at least one more year.
Minnesota’s second half schedule will tell us a lot more about the team than the first. I’ll be interested to see how they respond to adversity under new coach P.J. Fleck, and with a passing game that may struggle. With a new coaching staff, two untested quarterbacks, and a host of new players on defense, this is arguably a true rebuild.
In Fleck’s first year at the helm at Western Michigan, the Broncos were 1-11. Last year, they were undefeated until facing Wisconsin in their bowl game. If he can rebuild that team, I don’t know why he can’t rebuild the Gophers. At the same time, rebuilds don’t happen overnight. I’m predicting eight wins for Minnesota this year, but I’m an optimist; I freely admit that seven is probably more realistic.