With the Golden Gophers kicking off their 2016 season is less than three days times, I thought it was about time to reveal my predictions for what should be Minnesota's comeback season this fall. Let's do this.
Game 1: Gophers vs. Oregon State: 31-17 W (1-0)
I think this game is actually going to be pretty close in the first half as Minnesota adjusts to a new offense, a new defense and works out the first game jitters. Oregon State is a good team on offense as they have the weapons to spread the field, but their defense is ultimately going to be the downfall. I think Minnesota's able to pull away in the second half by going ground and pound and the Gophers are able to get their first victory of the year.
Game 2: Gophers vs. Indiana State: 38-10 W (2-0)
The Gophers come out the following week against a five-win FCS team from the Missouri Valley conference in Indiana State, and I don't see this as much of a challenge for Minnesota. The Gophers last three FCS opponents have been New Hampshire in 2012 (44-7 victory), Western Illinois in 2013 (29-12 victory) and Eastern Illinois in 2014 (42-20 victory), and they've outscored those opponents by a margin of 115 to 39. I believe the Gophers will have no issues getting ahead, and staying ahead to move to 2-0 on the season.
Game 3: Gophers vs. Colorado State: 24-10 W (3-0)
I anticipate this game for Minnesota to be the toughest of the non-conference as the Rams of Colorado State appear to be stout in the run game, and fans know that's where Minnesota has struggled last season. The other story line for this game will likely be the return of Shannon Brooks to the lineup, and he gets to face a brand new defensive line as the Rams graduated all four starters from last season, and Leidner may be able to exploit things through the air as Colorado State graduated three players in the secondary that combined for over 100 total starts combined. Another game that I anticipate to be close throughout unless Minnesota is able to really get the ground game going, but Minnesota should be undefeated heading into Happy Valley.
Game 4: Gophers at Penn State: 13-7 L (3-1)
This game is going to remind all of what the Big Ten is about, as it'll be two very physical teams trying to run the ball down each others throats. Penn State has maybe the most talented running back in the Big Ten in sophomore Saquon Barkley, and if Minnesota is able to contain him for the most part, it's going to be a very interesting game. Happy Valley is a tough place to play and it's also a revenge game for Penn State OL coach Matt Limegrover (former Gophers OC/OL coach). Penn State proves to be too tough on defense at home for the Gophers, and Minnesota suffers their first loss of the season.
Game 5: Gophers vs Iowa: 28-27 L (3-2)
While I believe that Iowa is going to be overrated coming into this season, I also believe there still a good team in the Big Ten West, and that C.J Beathard is one of the best quarterbacks in the Big Ten. Plus, when you look at their defense, they have a future first round pick in Desmond Kind in the secondary, a very good linebacker in Josey Jewall and they're defensive line appears to be one of the strengths as well. I think Leidner's decision-making is going to be tested here at home going against a very opportunistic defense in the Hawkeyes, and that Iowa scores late and takes the Floyd of Rosedale back home to Iowa City. Gophers now head to Maryland on a two game losing streak.
Game 6: Gophers at Maryland: 24-21 L (3-3)
The game at Maryland to me, is the trap game of the season for the Gophers in 2016. The Terrapins have a new, first-year head coach in D.J. Durkin, in whom the Gophers faced last season when Durkin was the defensive coordinator at Michigan, but Maryland will be riding high early with only one loss likely coming into this game. The Terrapins also have one of the best return men in America in Will Likely and I believe he'll take one back this game. Maryland's front seven is underrated, and Durkin gets his first big win of his career toppling the Gophers at home, sending Minnesota into a three game losing skid with arguably the most important game of the season next week against Rutgers.
Game 7: Gophers vs. Rutgers: 27-10 W (4-3)
Minnesota's homecoming game against Rutgers couldn't have come at a better time with the Gophers on a three game losing skid, losing all three by single digits. Under the leadership of Mitch Leidner and Damarius Travis, Minnesota comes out angry, and ready to play to prove to themselves and the rest of the Big Ten that there's still a lot of good football left to be played in the Big Ten. Minnesota goes into halftime leading by double digits and a late score makes this game look much closer than it actually was.
Game 8: Gophers at Illinois: 27-20 W (5-3)
Illinois is a team that has given Minnesota fits the last two seasons, including a disappointing loss last time Minnesota was in Champaign 28-24 in 2014. It'll be interesting to see where the Illini are at mentally coming into this game, as they'll be coming off of a tough game in the Big House at Michigan. Wes Lunt is a scary quarterback to face when he has time in the pocket, but I don't think Jay Sawvel ever lets him get comfortable and Minnesota's able to get out of Illinois on a good note.
Game 9: Gophers vs. Purdue: 38-13 W (6-3)
Purdue comes into this game on the road having just played Iowa, Nebraska and Penn State in successive weeks, and this looks to be a game the Gophers offense lights up the scoreboard. Minnesota hasn't had trouble scoring against Purdue in recent seasons, and I don't anticipate the Boilermakers to be too tough of a task, as Minnesota get their bowl eligibility heading into a November showdown against the Nebraska Cornhuskers under the lights in Lincoln.
Game 10: Gophers at Nebraska: 21-14 L (6-4)
This is another game to be that's more of a toss-up, and beating Nebraska at night in November is an extremely tough task. At this point in the schedule as well, we also have to start talking about who is the healthiest at this point, as a couple of key injuries could decide what team in this Big Ten West collision comes out victorious. For the time being, I think winning at Nebraska just isn't in the playing cards for Minnesota heading into a pivotal game at home against Northwestern for Senior Day.
Game 11: Gophers vs. Northwestern: 14-10 W (7-4)
This is going to be an old-fashioned Big Ten slobberknocker as Northwestern travels to Minneapolis for a cold November game as both defenses are the strong points of each of the respective teams. Mitch Leidner, Damarius Travis, Jonah Pirsig and Jalen Myrick among others will be playing their final game at TCF Bank Stadium, and while the Wildcats won double digits games last summer, I see them regressing back to the mean this fall, and Minnesota behind their seniors gets an important win at home heading into the final game, and maybe the most important game of the season in the final week of Big Ten play.
Game 12: Gophers at Wisconsin: 21-20 W (8-4)
Yes folks. This is the year. Minnesota gets the Axe back in Dinkytown for the first time since 2003, and beats Wisconsin at home for the first time since 1994. There isn't another game all year that the Gophers will be as motivated for as this team has heard constantly throughout the time that Tracy Claeys has been here how Minnesota hasn't been able to conquer their rival from the east. Wisconsin's schedule is very similar to Minnesota's from last season, and that's a good thing if you're a Gopher fan as the Badgers are facing stiff competition throughout and could be fighting for their bowl eligibility come the last game of the season. I see this game coming down to whoever is healthiest, and for once, lady luck has to choose Minnesota and the Gopher faithful are able to rejoice once again as Minnesota brings home the Axe.
Game 13: Bowl Game: W (9-4)
Taxslayer Bowl, December 31st
Not sure who Minnesota plays in their bowl game, but I'm projecting warm skies ahead as Minnesota heads down to Jacksonville to face an SEC opponent in late December and Mitch Leidner goes out with a bang to raise his NFL Draft Stock.
Vs. Oregon State
Vs. Indiana State
Vs. Colorado State
At Penn State