1) Gophers get the Axe back in Madison for the first time since 1994
I'll start off by saying that I believe Minnesota will beat Wisconsin in Madison this fall for the first time in 22 years. Getting the Axe back for the first time since 2003. There's a conglomerate of pathways I can direct you as to why this is going to be the year, but I'll start by giving you the Gopher fan a brief look at what Wisconsin has to go against this season. A brand new defensive coordinator breaking in his system. A new quarterback with very little experience.
They also have one of the toughest schedules in America on paper, as the Gophers did last year. They start the year at Lambeau against LSU, then play two home non-conference games against Akron (who won eight games last year) and Georgia State. Then the real fun begins as the Badgers will have to travel to East Lansing and Ann Arbor and take on two Big Ten teams that won double digit games last year. Thankfully the following week is a bye, but then they're greeted by Ohio State coming to Madison. Next, they get both Iowa and Northwestern on the road (both teams won double digit games), and also Nebraska at home in the between those two. In total, Wisconsin's opponents won 98 games last season, and only lost 57.
Minnesota's on the other hand has a new defensive coordinator as well, but one that's been on staff with Claeys for most of his tenure. A senior quarterback with 25+ starts under his belt, and a much easier schedule from last season. Minnesota's opponents from last season had a record of 73 wins and 77 losses, which is a considerable change from last season where the six of the Gophers seven losses came to 10 win teams.
What the final game of the regular season usually comes down to is two things.
Who is healthiest and who is peaking.
The Gophers have a tough last three games of the season (at Nebraska, vs. Northwestern and at Wisconsin), while the Badgers have an easier load (vs. Illinois, at Purdue and vs. Minnesota), but Wisconsin could have a long list of injuries from the first eight games of the season, while hopefully this is the year where Minnesota can avoid the injury bug.
There's a very real scenario where Minnesota could be playing for a shot at the Big Ten West title, and the Badgers could be battling for bowl eligibility during this final game.
I say in this final regular season game, Minnesota gets the Axe and denies the Badgers bowl eligibility.
2) Shannon Brooks rushes for 1000 yards and 10 touchdowns
This is a bold take I've had throughout the entire summer, and one that may be a little hot now with Brooks expected to miss a couple of games to open the season, but I trust the Georgia native's talent and have more trust in the Gophers offense and offensive line to help him get to this mark.
It's still relatively unknown as to where Brooks is at in the recovery process with the broken bone in his foot, but the three to five week timetable would put Shannon back at the earliest (right about three weeks from surgery) in time for the Oregon State game next week, but that seems unlikely at this point. My guess as to how the Gophers staff plays it is to let Brooks sit the first two games of the season, and then really ramp things up for him during Minnesota's bye week and have him ready to be released against Colorado State.
If the Gophers first scrimmage was any indication, these running back are going to have much bigger holes to run through than what they saw last season. The additions of Garrison Wright and Vincent Calhoun are proved to be very valuable additions to a position group that lost eight scholarship players from last season.
With a healthy Jonah Pirsig, Tyler Moore going into his sophomore season and Connor Mayes becoming one of the veterans of this group, this should be Minnesota's best offensive line (HUGE DISCLAIMER here: if healthy) since Claeys has been around.
I also expect Jay Johnson to be able to spread the field more, opening the box up for Shannon, Rodney Smith and the other running backs.
If Shannon comes back ready go versus Colorado State, watch out.
3) Tyler Johnson has a more productive freshman season than Rashad Still in 2015
This isn't an indictment of Rashad Still's talent in the least, but it's more about the amount of opportunity that there is at the wide receiver position right now.
The three guys that are going to see targets are Drew Wolitarsky, Brandon Lingen and Rashad Still, and it's wide open in my eyes behind those three.
Enter in a talented athlete like Tyler Johnson and you can see why I think there's a chance for him to have a more productive season than Still had as a true freshman last season.
Eric Carter, Melvin Holland and Isaiah Gentry are all dealing with injuries, so the opportunity for Johnson to make a statement early in the non-conference will be there, and Brian Anderson is going to play the best players no matter if they're a freshman, or a senior.
Still's numbers in 2015 were 18 receptions for 194 yards and three receiving touchdowns, and I believe that Johnson can at least duplicate those numbers, and even surpass them this fall.
I'm putting Johnson's final stat line around 25 receptions for 250 yards and three touchdowns, which isn't a significant jump from what Rashad Still did last season, but it's an improvement none the less.
4) The linebackers have more sacks than the defensive line
I'm not entirely sure how much of a bold take this is, but Minnesota had 22 sacks in 2015 and 12 of them came via the defensive line, and eight came via the linebackers. I'm all but assuming that those two position groups numbers are going to flip in 2016.
Minnesota's defensive end spot may the least amount of proven depth on the team, while the complete opposite is true about the Gophers linebacking core as there is a lot of proven depth between Jack Lynn, Cody Poock, Jonathan Celestin, Nick Rallis and more.
Gaelin Elmore, Steven Richardson and Hank Ekpe are the three returning defensive linemen from last season with the highest sack totals and the three combine for 7.5 sacks between them, but I believe that you're going to see a lot different blitzes and personal schemes that'l allow the linebackers to burst through the line of scrimmage and wreak havoc in the backfield this fall. Guys like Jonathan Celestin, Julian Huff, Kamal Martin and Jack Lynn could be competing for Minnesota's sack title this fall, and you shouldn't be surprised if that's the case.