It would be easy to argue that this three-game quarter of the 2016 Gopher schedule is the indicator of what fans can expect and help determine what type of team Minnesota’s will have this season.
If Minnesota is able to go 3-0 in this stretch of games fans and boosters will become giddy and immediately begin talks of a dream season and a possible trip to Indianapolis. Even a 2-1 start is solid and if paired with a 3-0 nonconference start, which was previously predicted, will have Minnesota set up for a solid season and a desirable bowl location.
At 1-2, depending on how the games were played, would most likely eliminate any thoughts of a magical run but would still have Minnesota in position to finish with a solid season. Getting blanked at 0-3 would be dismal and would have to include a loss to a very bad Maryland team, even though it would be on the road it would still hurt and the expectations for the season would quickly turn in survival mode.
7-6 (4-4) in 2015
This could be the biggest game on the schedule for the Golden Gophers. If Minnesota is able to successfully hold serve and begin the season with a 3-0 start in the nonconference, as expected, many will believe they will have done so with a soft schedule and will have yet to prove anything. While that may be true, Game 4 will give Minnesota a chance to make those in doubt take notice and show respect.
The Gophers will open Big Ten play on the road and in Happy Valley against a Penn State team that is desperate to get back to helmet school status after several seasons of mediocre play. Many believe that Penn State took a big step last season in their attempts to return to “helmet school” status. However, it only takes five seconds to look at their 2015 schedule to realize they didn’t do much to impress.
Penn State won four games in the Big Ten, at first glance not too shabby. However, take a look at who they beat. The Lions four conference wins came at the hands of brutal Maryland at a neutral site, and home wins against Rutgers, Indiana (before they heated up) and Illinois. As expected Penn State lost to Ohio State, Northwestern and Michigan State on the road, and Michigan at home.
Minnesota will come out jacked for this contest. While it may not have helped that senior captain and quarterback Mitch Leidner took shots at a new Penn State staffer, quotes that I am sure will surface during game week, the Gophers will play with a major chip on their shoulder as they will look to make a statement.
Leidner will handle the pressure of playing in front of over 100,000 and the Gophers will squeak out a nail biter to improve the 4-0. The offensive game plan will be simple and elementary; control the clock, eliminate turnovers and get points when available. The defensive game plan will be to slow down star back Saquon Barkley Saquon and make the Nits win via their limited air attack.
Minnesota improves to 4-0 with a textbook Big Ten road victory, 19-14.
12-2 (8-1) in 2015
TCF Bank Stadium
It is no secret that Iowa has been consistently unpredictable during the Kirk Ferentz era in Iowa City. Seasons in which Iowa is predicted to contend for the Big Ten they struggle. Seasons in which they are predicted to struggle they take a perfect season deep into the Big Ten title game.
I understand it is crazy and makes Gopher fans sick to their stomach but Iowa was just one key defensive play from winning the Big Ten title at 13-0 last year and representing the Big Ten in the College Football Playoff. Thankfully Sparty came up big and crushed Iowa’s dream season.
Due to Wisconsin’s brutal schedule and Iowa’s retuning talent, many are expecting Iowa to win the Big Ten West for a second consecutive season in 2016. For Iowa to do so they are going to have to bring their A-game to Minneapolis.
The Gophers will be hungry to continue a strong season and a win over Iowa will not only bring Floyd back to the Twin Cities but will also give Minnesota a key tiebreaker in the West standings.
The two teams squared off last season in Iowa City and the contest was anything from what was expected. Iowa was expected to either blow out Minnesota, or toy with the Gophers for three quarters until they slowly wore down the Gopher defense and used their running game to cruise in the fourth quarter. While Iowa did use their running game to demoralize the Gopher defense, the Gopher offense was up for the challenge and nearly matched Iowa score for score. The Gophers used big plays to keep the game close but ultimately lost 40-35.
Due to the success of the Gopher offense against Iowa in 2015, I look for Minnesota to play the same “aggressive” style against the Hawkeyes at home in 2016. Minnesota will try to use Leidner and his big play capabilities to soften up the Iowa defense and allow for screen passes and possible bubble screens (remember K.J. Maye circa 2014) to frustrate the Iowa defense.
In the end I think Iowa figures things out and retains Floyd of Rosedale south of the border. The Gophers will have their chances to pull it out late but they will come up short and Iowa escapes 23-17.
3-9 (1-7) in 2015
The Gophers will have to do whatever is possible to avoid a “let down” heading into their road game with Maryland. The previous two weeks will be emotional, both in victory and in defeat. It might be difficult for the Gophers to be completely focused as they prepare to play as the favorite in a conference road game.
This game also is the first of a four game stretch in which the Gophers will be set up for a nice midseason stroll thru the bottom half of the Big Ten. The Gophers could impress the naysayers and pad their stats with games against Maryland, Rutgers (h), Illinois and Purdue (h) before finishing the regular season with Nebraska, Northwestern (h) and Wisconsin.
Anyway, back to the task at hand. See how easy it was for me to forget about the Terrapins? Maryland is bad and Minnesota is not. Even though Maryland is at home I think Minnesota comes into College Park and shows the Terps they are open for business and are not looking back to the Penn State - Iowa games nor are they looking forward to Homecoming the following weekend.
The Gophers will go back to their roots to win this game. Expect a high dose of Brooks and Smith, each of which will exceed the century mark for total yards. Leidner will use the success of the running game to connect on some deep balls to Rashad Still and Isaiah Gentry and Minnesota will cruise to a 37-16 victory.
After Quarter 2 of the 2016 season the Gophers will be sitting at 5-1 (2-1) with fans and boosters excited for what is to come during the next three weeks. Did I fail to mention Minnesota gets Rutgers at home, Illinois on the road and Purdue at home during Quarter 3?