Tom Dienhart, BTN.com Senior Writer, May 12, 2017
It?s a word you hear often when you are around new Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck, who arrived from Western Michigan emoting positivity and dreaming big. Now, the journey begins.
Can Fleck make Minnesota a Big Ten West champ someday after going 30-22 in four years at Western Michigan with a trip to the Cotton Bowl last season? The excitement level is running high at Minnesota. The possibilities seem limitless. And make no mistake about it: Fleck isn?t inheriting a broken program. That is talent in place in Dinkytown. But the schedule offers few breaks.
Here is a breakdown of Minnesota?s 2017 schedule.
Aug. 31 Buffalo (Thursday)
Sept. 9 at Oregon State
Sept. 16 Middle Tennessee State
Sept. 23 OFF
Sept. 30 Maryland
Oct. 7 at Purdue
Oct. 14 Michigan State
Oct. 21 Illinois
Oct. 28 at Iowa
Nov. 4 at Michigan
Nov. 11 Nebraska
Nov. 18 at Northwestern
Nov. 25 Wisconsin
Toughest non-conference game: A trip to Oregon State for the second game of the season on Sept. 9 will be a nice test. The Gophers beat the Beavers last year. Expect Oregon State to be improved under Gary Andersen, the former Wisconsin coach who won two games his first year in Corvallis and four last season. This will be Minnesota?s first trip to Oregon State, as the four previous meetings all were in Minneapolis. The Gophers are 3-1.
Toughest conference game: A trip to Michigan for the Little Brown Jug game on Nov. 4 will be difficult. Making matters more challenging is the fact this game is sandwiched between a game at Iowa and a visit from Nebraska. Michigan and Minnesota have split their last two games, with the Gophers winning in Ann Arbor in 2015 and almost prevailing last season before the Wolverines won, 29-26, at Minnesota. P.J. Fleck vs. Jim Harbaugh. Gotta love it.
Who they don?t play: It?s a good news-bad news scenario, as the Golden Gophers miss Ohio State, Penn State, Rutgers and Indiana.
Easiest game: The season opener on a Thursday night vs. Buffalo from the MAC should allow P.J. Fleck to enjoy a nice debut. Lance Leipold won six Division III national titles at Wisconsin-Whitewater. But he?s just 7-17 in two seasons at Buffalo.
Toughest stretch: The last five games figure to make or break Minnesota. The run begins Oct. 28 with a trip to Iowa followed by a game at Michigan. The Gophers come home to play Nebraska before trekking to Northwestern and then finishing at home vs. Wisconsin. Iowa has dominated the Floyd of Rosedale series with Minnesota, going 12-4 in the last 16 encounters. The Gophers have won the Little Brown Jug just two times (2005 and 2014) since 1986, going 2-23 in the last 25 meetings. Minnesota is 2-4 vs. Nebraska since the Huskers joined the Big Ten. The Gophers have won three of the last four vs. the Wildcats. But Minnesota hasn?t won Paul Bunyan?s Axe from Wisconsin since 2003, losing the last 13 meetings and 20 of 22 since 1995.
Best chance to be upset: Minnesota could be toppled by Maryland when the Terrapins visit in the Big Ten opener on Sept. 30. Like the Gophers with P.J. Fleck, Maryland has a rising star coach in DJ Durkin, who already has one year under his belt in College Park. If the Terps are improved in the trenches and getting steady quarterback play, they could leave Dinkytown with a victory. Minnesota won last year at Maryland. The Gophers also need to be careful when Middle Tennessee State comes to town on Sept. 16. The Blue Raiders have gone to bowls in three of the last four seasons and have a talented QB in Brent Stockstill, the son of MTSU coach Rick who led his team to a win at Missouri last year.
Best chance to pull an upset: The Golden Gophers may be able to take down visiting Nebraska on Nov. 11. The Huskers will have a new quarterback and a new 3-4 defensive scheme. How will it all play out by November? A big issue for the Gophers is the fact this game falls between road trips to Michigan and to Northwestern. The Cornhuskers have won the last two games, but Minnesota won the two before that.
Must win: To make it six bowls in a row, Minnesota probably will need to take down visiting Michigan State on Oct. 14. This is a Spartan program trying to rebound from a confounding 3-9 season that saw MSU miss a bowl for the first time since 2006. What to make of the Spartans? Who knows? Michigan State has won the last four meetings, but the teams haven?t clashed since 2013 and haven?t met in Dinkytown since 2012. The Gophers? last victory at home vs. the Spartans? It came in 2009.
Bye week: This comes on Sept. 23, after Minnesota has played its three non-conference games. An opportunity to reset and prep for the conference season. And the Gophers have a good chance to be 3-0 entering the off week.