Coming off a 7-6 season including a bowl win, Minnesota's 2019 schedule isn't overly daunting, although there are some interesting teams it'll face. Read on for our ranking of the Gophers' 2019 opponents.
12. Oct. 19 at Rutgers
Rutgers won its first game in 2018 … then proceeded to lose the next 11 in a row. The Scarlet Knights return much of the same team – you can decide whether that’s good or bad news. The defense, which allowed 31.4 points per game and 5.7 yards per play, does have a new coordinator in Andy Buh. We’ll see if that helps. The offense has nowhere to go but up after averaging 13.5 points and 4.14 yards per play. QB Artur Sitkowski started 11 games as a true freshman last year and struggled mightily (49.1%, 4 TD, 18 INT). Texas Tech transfer McLane Carter could wrest hold of the job (days before their opener, head coach Chris Ash wasn't tipping his hand). Either way, the Scarlet Knights will likely rely heavily on RBs Raheem Blackshear (586 yards) and Isaih Pacheco (551 yards). Looks like it’s going to be another long year in Piscataway.
11. Aug. 29 vs. South Dakota State
The Gophers open the season against an FCS opponent, but this isn’t your run-of-the-mill FCS team. The Jackrabbits went 10-3 last season and made the FCS playoffs, advancing to the semifinals. South Dakota State has seven starters returning on both offense and defense from a team which scored 42.5 points per game and allowed 22.3. One player who is gone, though, is quarterback Taryn Christian, who threw for over 3,000 yards in 2018. The Jackrabbits do return standouts RB Pierre Strong (1,149 yards, 11 TDs), RB Mikey Daniel (10 TDs) and WR Cade Johnson (1,332 yards, 17 TD). But how rattled will redshirt freshman QB J’Bore Gibbs be in his collegiate debut? And can a smaller FCS defense stop a potent Minnesota running game? This won’t be a pushover for Minnesota, but this isn’t the worst team the Gophers will face in 2019.
10. Oct. 5 vs. Illinois
The Fighting Illini actually could be quite interesting on offense. Illinois named Michigan transfer Brandon Peters (8 of 13 for 56 yards and a TD vs. Minnesota in 2017) the starting quarterback, but perhaps by early October it will be speedy five-star recruit Isaiah Williams’ turn. Running back Reggie Corbin (1,085 yards, 8.48 yards/carry, 9 TD) could be the focal point of the offense, running behind a decent offensive line which added Alabama transfer Richie Petitbon. Head coach Lovie Smith has taken charge of the defense, and he has his work cut out for him. Illinois allowed 39.4 points and 508.3 yards per game in 2018. If Minnesota needs any motivation not to take the Illini lightly, they can just look to last year’s meeting, a 55-31 Illinois win.
9. Oct. 26 vs. Maryland
After a tumultuous 2018 season, the Terrapins have a new head coach in former Maryland and Alabama assistant Mike Locksley. There will be a lot of new players on the Terps in 2019, especially on defense where only four starters return. Josh Jackson, a transfer from Virginia Tech, will start at quarterback. In 2017 he threw for nearly 3,000 yards with 20 TD and 9 INT. The offense suffered a big blow when leading returning receiver Jeshaun Jones (team-high 5 TDs) tore his ACL this summer, which could mean a lot of RB Anthony McFarland (1,034 yards). With so much turnover there’s a lot of questions about a team which went 5-7 last season, although one of those wins was a 42-13 drubbing of the Gophers.
8. Sept. 14 vs. Georgia Southern
The Eagles will present a different look for the Gophers. Georgia Southern runs the option – and we mean runs. The Eagles had 643 rushing attempts last year with only 118 pass attempts, so this will be a test for a Minnesota defense which isn’t used to seeing this type of offensive scheme. Quarterback Shai Werts (901 rushing yards, 15 TDs) returns but RB Wesley Fields (1,050 yards, 9 TDs) is gone. Still, Georgia Southern remains sold on its offense, so expect a lot of option and a lot of runs, no matter who replaced Fields in the backfield. Georgia Southern was 10-3 last season and relied on not making mistakes, turning the ball over just five times with no interceptions (the first FBS team to ever accomplish that in a season), while the defense had 27 takeaways (12 fumbles, 15 interceptions). Georgia Southern’s defense allowed 5.45 yards per play last year but only 3.93 yards per rush. This game will be an interesting one to watch.
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7. Sept. 28 at Purdue
Jeff Brohm returns for Year 3 after nearly leaving for Louisville (don’t worry, he was well-compensated to stick around at Purdue). Wide receiver/returner Rondale Moore (1,258 receiving yards, 12 TDs) might be the Big Ten’s most exciting player. But quarterback David Blough is gone and fifth-year senior Elijah Sindelar, who threw for 2,099 yards and 18 TDs in 2017, will step in and see if he can replicate the success Purdue had in 2018 (30.5 points per game). He’ll do so with an offensive line which lost three starters. The Boilermakers’ defense is experienced but was just so-so last year (30.0 points, 452.6 yards allowed per game). Minnesota won last year’s matchup handily (41-10) but this being a road game should be closer.
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6. Nov. 23 at Northwestern
How the Wildcats won the Big Ten West in 2018 might be one of the biggest mysteries in college football history (we kid). Northwestern did it with a just-good-enough offense, solid defense and ability to win on the road (6-1). The Wildcats allowed just 23.2 points per game and gave up 30+ points just four times (Akron (!!), Nebraska, Notre Dame and Ohio State). At the same point, Northwestern topped 30 points only five times with a high of 34. Gone is solid QB Clayton Thorson and in is Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson. Northwestern doesn’t have many weapons and will look to replicate its success from last year, relying on defense, smart football and clutch plays.
5. Sept. 7 at Fresno State
The Gophers handed the Bulldogs one of their two losses last season (12-2), a 21-14 win at TCF Bank Stadium. Fresno State went 6-0 at home last season – but this isn’t last year’s team. The Bulldogs lost 13 starters from last year, including their quarterback, top receiver, four offensive linemen and four of the top-five leading tacklers. Fresno State does have some strong returning players, especially in the secondary in Juju Hughes and Jason Bryant. There are a lot of question marks here but head coach Jeff Tedford has a good track record and a late-night game (9:30 p.m. CT) on the road is no easy task.
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4. Oct 12 vs. Nebraska
There’s a lot of hype surrounding the Cornhuskers this year. Not that we’re wholly on board with that, but Nebraska does have perhaps the best quarterback in the conference in sophomore Adrian Martinez (64.6%, 2,617 passing yards, 17 TD; 629 rushing yards, 8 TD). In a 53-28 win over Minnesota last year, Martinez completed 25 of 29 passes for 276 yards and 3 TD and rushed for a season-high 125 yards with a TD. J.D. Spielman and Cal grad transfer Kanawai Noa will test the Badgers’ secondary. While Nebraska’s offense (30.0 ppg) was good, its defense was not (31.3 ppg). The addition of Oklahoma State DT Darrion Daniels will help, but he’s not a miracle worker. This will be a tough test for Minnesota, but this one being at home might help.
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3. Nov. 30 vs. Wisconsin
You might have heard, but the Gophers beat the Badgers last year to end a long winless drought against Wisconsin. And that game was on the road, this one will be played in Minnesota. Wisconsin is expected to play Wisconsin football – running behind a big offensive line led by center Tyler Biadasz and giving the rock to RB Jonathan Taylor, who rushed for an NCAA-best 2,194 yards last year. There’s a lot of questions surrounding the Badgers – how will inexperienced QB Jack Coan fare (or by this point perhaps its heralded recruit Graham Mertz), can returning WR Quintez Cephus make an impact and can a young defense step up, especially pressuring the quarterback? By the end of the year, we should have answers. Nevertheless, Minnesota has to feel better than ever with its chances against its bitter rival.
2. Nov. 9 vs. Penn State
The Nittany Lions went 9-4 last season (three of those four defeats coming to teams which finished in the top 15) but we’re not sure how much that means for 2019. Penn State’s starting quarterback and running back from last year are gone to the NFL, among a few other starters, and 11 players transferred out of the program. While the offense is something of an enigma, the defense should be solid once again despite losing three of its five leading tacklers. Penn State’s defense can pressure the QB, recording 107 tackles for loss and 47 sacks in 2018. Defensive lineman Yetur Gross-Matos, who had 20 TFL, does return.
1. Nov. 16 at Iowa
The Hawkeyes had a good defense in 2018 (17.8 points, 293.6 yards per game) and they should be good again, although their top-four tacklers, including defensive back Amani Hooker, are gone. Iowa isn’t just about defense, though, last year averaging 31.2 points per game. Quarterback Nate Stanley (59.3%, 2,852 yards, 26 TDs) returns at quarterback. Last year at Minnesota, Stanley torched the Gophers for 314 yards and four TDs. Iowa has a good, if unspectacular, mix at running back, but Stanley’s top-two receivers – tight ends T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant – are both in the NFL. Minnesota might play teams with more talent, but with this one on the road so this could well likely be the Gophers’ toughest task of 2019.