P.J. Fleck's first season as Minnesota Gophers head coach is decidedly split up into two sections. The first half of the season sees Minnesota play a decidedly easier schedule when compared to the second half. But you can only play who is on that 12-game list in the regular season and thus we take a crack at ranking the Gophers' opponents from those who Minnesota should row the boat over to some who might be, dare we say, elite. With that in mind, here's the FOX Sports North ranking of Minnesota's 2017 games.
12. Aug. 31: vs. Buffalo
The P.J. Fleck era in Minnesota begins with a cupcake nonconference matchup on a Thursday against the Bulls, who finished dead last in the Mid-American Conference last season with a 2-10 overall record and were picked to finish fifth (out of six teams) in the MAC's East Division in the conference's preseason poll. Although the Big Ten is new to Fleck, he’s familiar with Buffalo. His Western Michigan squad crushed the Bulls 38-0 last year on the road. Buffalo is the perfect recipe to get the ball rolling -- er, the boat moving -- for the Gophers in 2017.
USA TODAY SportsBob DeChiara
11. Sept. 9: at Oregon State
Oregon State has won six combined games the last two seasons, although the Gophers almost gifted them with a seventh to open 2016. Minnesota snuck out an ugly 30-23 win last September in a game that saw three Gophers get ejected for illegal hits. The Beavers will turn to junior-college transfer Jake Luton to resurrect their offense that finished as the caboose in the Pac-12 in 2016 (366 total yards per game).
USA TODAY SportsRon Chenoy
10. Oct. 21: vs. Illinois
Fleck’s first homecoming should be a walk in the park. The Fighting Illini haven’t had a winning season since 2011. Illinois hired former Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith in 2016 to turn things around, but his reign began in 2016 with just two conference wins over Rutgers and Michigan State. It won’t get any easier in year two. Illinois lost key starters on the offensive and defensive line, as well as its starting quarterback Wes Lunt, who spent time with the Vikings in minicamp in the spring. This game marks a turning point in the Gophers’ schedule and is a must-win if they are to carry momentum into the tough second-half matchups against the likes of Iowa, Wisconsin and Michigan. More on those later.
9. Oct. 7: at Purdue
Once upon a time there was some speculation that Purdue could land Fleck, but The Boilermakers’ brass hired former Western Kentucky coach Jeff Brohm instead to help guide the program into the future. Junior David Blough finished third in the Big Ten last year with 3,352 passing yards and 25 touchdowns, and returns alongside a group of talented running backs. Still, Purdue’s offensive line remains a work in progress, while a lack of playmakers in their wide receiver corps is another major issue.
8. Sept. 16: vs. Middle Tennessee
Gophers basketball head coach Richard Pitino might be watching this game closely, as Minnesota looks to avenge the season-ending loss the Blue Raiders handed the Gophers basketball team in March. Middle Tennessee had a 8-5 record last year, finished third in Conference USA East and lost to Hawaii 52-35 Hawaii Bowl. Junior Brent Stockstill is a well-regarded quarterback who is on several preseason watch lists. Despite missing three games last season with a broken collarbone, he passed for 3,233 yards with 31 touchdowns and just seven interceptions. Receiver Richie James, also a junior, was the main beneficiary, catching 105 passes for 1,625 yards and 12 TDs. MTSU did allow 35.8 points and 449.5 yards per game in 2016 (hence a new defensive coordinator in 2017), so this one could be a shootout.
USA TODAY SportsMarco Garcia
7. Sept. 30: vs. Maryland
Senior defensive lineman Jesse Aniebonam finished fourth in the Big Ten last season with nine sacks. Their defense ranked third-to-last, but had a solid team rushing attack in 2016. Ty Johnson was a 1,000-yard rusher last season behind a strong offensive line
6. Oct 14: vs. Michigan State
After three straight seasons of double-digit victories, the Spartans surprised everyone last season with a 3-9 overall record and a 1-8 mark in the conference. Mark Dantonio’s squad can only improve on that number in 2017. The matchup against the Gophers wraps up an incredibly tough four-game stretch for Michigan State. The Spartans host Notre Dame and Iowa in late September, then visit Michigan and Minnesota to launch their October schedule.
USA TODAY SportsMike Carter
5. Nov. 11: vs. Nebraska
Minnesota’s own JD Spielman, son of Vikings general manager Rick Spielman and graduate of Eden Prairie High School, is expected to have a prominent role in the Cornhuskers’ attack as a wide receiver and kick returner in 2017. Spielman redshirted last season and won the scout team’s offensive MVP award. Nebraska is expected to contend for a division title in a West division that features much more depth than star-powered teams. If the Gophers want to play for a Big Ten championship and win the West, a home win against the rival Cornhuskers is a must.
Associated PressNati Harnik
4. Nov. 18: at Northwestern
Wildcats running back Justin Jackson led the Big Ten with 1,524 rushing yards. He’s a favorite to contend for the rushing title again this year alongside Gophers running back Rodney Smith. NU has experience on both their offensive and defensive lines, while both the receiving and defensive back corps return almost fully intact.
3. Oct. 28: at Iowa
Gophers fans are still smiling about their last win over Iowa, a 51-14 win in 2014 that featured three touchdown receptions from tight end Maxx Williams. Minnesota has lost to Iowa the past two years in one-possession games, 40-35 in 2015 and 14-7 last season. The Hawkeyes will choose between junior Tyler Wiegers and sophomore Nathan Stanley to take over at quarterback for CJ Beathard, who was drafted by the 49ers in the third round of the NFL draft. Minnesota is 4-12 against the Hawkeyes since 2001.
USA TODAY SportsCaylor Arnold
2. Nov. 4: at Michigan
Taking on the Wolverines in front of 100,000 fans at the Big House is never an easy task. Throw in head coach Jim Harbaugh and his khaki pants, and it gets even tougher. The Gophers travel to Michigan Stadium for the first time in the Harbaugh era and face the Wolverines for the first time since Mitch Leidner was stuffed at the goal line as time expired in the 29-26 loss at TCF Bank Stadium in 2015. Michigan looks to build on back-to-back 10-win seasons and be a legitimate contender for the College Football Playoff, but it lost a lot of talent from last season. The Wolverines saw a program-high 11 players selected in the 2017 NFL draft. They lost key contributors on defense like safety Jabrill Peppers and linebacker Ben Gedeon – now on the Vikings -- as well as their top three receivers and starting running back from 2016. A top-tier recruiting class for Harbaugh should be able to fill in the gaps and prove to be the Gophers’ toughest road test of the year.
Getty ImagesGregory Shamus
1. Nov. 25: vs. Wisconsin
New year, same storyline. The Gophers haven’t swung Paul Bunyan’s Axe since beating Wisconsin on a last-second field goal at the Metrodome in 2003. That’s 13 straight losses to they-who-shall-not-be named. Thirteen! Wisconsin is the favorite to win the West this season, despite losing starting inside linebacker Jack Cichy to a season-ending ACL injury. No matter how many wins the Gophers collect in 2017, taking down the Badgers would be the biggest accomplishment of the year for Fleck. It’s time to trade in those oars for axes.