As the Big Ten enters its nine-game conference schedule, the Land of 10 examines each school before its league opener:
ANALYSIS: The Golden Gophers’ competition hasn’t set the world on fire (with a schedule strength ranked 135th out of 253 teams rated by Jeff Sagarin), but the offense has, ranking among the nation’s top 25 in points per possession (3.13, No. 11), fewest giveaways per game (1.0, No. 22) and red-zone scoring percentage (100, tied for No. 1). Coach Tracy Claeys has weathered injuries at the tailback position and Mitch Leidner-to-Drew Wolitarsky has proven to be one of the more reliable pass-catch combos through the first month of the campaign.
The defense has proven to be somewhat less sexy, statistically (2.03 points allowed per drive; only Penn State’s 2.23 is worse among Big Ten schools), but the physicality has been impressive, particularly with 300-pound defensive tackle Steven Richardson (2 sacks, 13 tackles) in the heart of the line and lightning-quick 6-foot-4 freshman end Tai’yon Devers — whose quarterback hits already recall the ferocity (and viral appeal) of Jadeveon Clowney’s college days — coming off the edge.
KEY GAME: vs Iowa, Oct. 8.
If the Gophers are ready to be serious players in the West race, if they’re setting up to be “this year’s Iowa,” then they can start by taking out the Hawkeyes themselves. The defending division champs have looked less than airtight in a home loss to North Dakota State and having to scrap to outlast Rutgers in Piscataway, slipping at a time when peer contenders Wisconsin and Nebraska have started building up steam. The Hawkeyes have dropped four of their last six Floyd of Rosedale showdowns in the Twin Cities, including a 51-14 thrashing at TCF Bank Stadium two years ago.
KEY PLAYER: Mitch Leidner, QB
Since 2014, Leidner has appeared in 28 games for the Gophers. When he completes at least 52 percent of his passes, Minnesota’s record in those contests is 11-4. In the other 13 games with 51 percent or lower, that record dips to 5-8. When he’s efficient, the Gophers’ offense usually is, too.
FIRST MATCHUP: at Penn State (2-2), 3:30 ET, Saturday, Beaver Stadium, BTN
BEST-CASE SCENARIO: Leidner’s surgically repaired foot and renaissance hold up, an up-and-down secondary comes around and the offensive line does the same. Minnesota sweeps its home slate and plucks at least two road wins — and maybe three — from an away card that includes visits to PSU (Oct. 1), Maryland (Oct. 15), Illinois (Oct. 29), Nebraska (Nov. 12) and Wisconsin (Nov. 26). The tussle with the rival Badgers the final weekend in November is for the West title and a berth in Indianapolis.
WORST-CASE SCENARIO: Old inconsistencies — and injuries, in the case of Leidner — crop up again. Early road tests at Happy Valley and College Park go up in flames and send preseason hopes crashing back to Earth in a hurry. The Gophers lose their first three league games and then find a way to drop another, somewhere, that they probably shouldn’t (at Illinois? At home to Northwestern?) and somehow miss a bowl for the first time since 2011. Jerry Kill isn’t just missed — he’s missed badly.
REALISTIC SCENARIO: More up than down, at least one victory in a trophy game, and just enough mojo to secure a postseason berth. A three-game stretch to open Big Ten play (at Penn State, vs. Iowa, at Maryland) really could set the tone for whether 2016 turns out to be just another fairly good season — or a special one.