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2021 football opponent preview: Minnesota Golden Gophers

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With a ton of experience back in Minneapolis can Minnesota contend for the division title?

Minnesota v Maryland Photo by G Fiume/Maryland Terrapins/Getty Images

It is August now, which means that it is time to seriously turn our attention to college football. The Wisconsin Badgers opened up fall practice earlier this month and the rest of the country has joined them as well. For the rest of the month, we will be posting two articles about each opponent on Wisconsin’s schedule.

The first post will be written by one of our staffers and will give you a basic overview of each team the Badgers are playing. The second post will be written by a variety of fans and writers of each team, giving us a more in-depth look at the team from those who follow it closely. We’ve got other SB Nation site contributors, newsletter writers, podcast hosts, and other Twitter sports shouters on deck. It should be a lot of fun.

Up next in our preview series we take a look at the Minnesota Golden Gophers.

Minnesota v Nebraska Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

Team name: Minnesota Golden Gophers
2020 record: 3-4, No. 4 in Big Ten West
Date/location of 2021 game: Saturday, November 27, Minneapolis
Last time vs. Wisconsin: Minnesota 17 - Wisconsin 20 (OT)

Returning leaders:

Passing: JR Tanner Morgan, 106-of-183 (57.9%), 1,374 yards, seven touchdowns, five interceptions
Rushing: JR Mohamed Ibrahim, 201 attempts for 1,100 yards (5.4 ypc), 15 touchdowns
Receiving: JR WR Chris Autman-Bell, 22 catches for 430 yards (19.5 ypc), one touchdown, long of 45 yards
Tackles: JR MLB Mariano Sori-Marin, 54 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss
Sacks: JR DE Boye Mafe, 4.5 sacks
Interceptions: Five players tied with one interception

Key offensive player:

It’s a bit of a broken record in this series of posts to have the key offensive player be your quarterback, but that is the way college football works these days. If you have good quarterback play you’ll likely be a competitive team, and if you have bad or even just mediocre quarterback play you will likely lose more games than you win.

Purdue v Minnesota Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Minnesota has had both sides of that with quarterback Tanner Morgan. In 2019, Morgan put up very solid numbers throwing for 3,253 yards, completing 66% of his passes, and throwing for 30 touchdowns to just seven interceptions. In each of Morgan’s other two seasons (2018 and 2020) he completed just 58% of his passes and put together 16 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Two very different sides indeed.

Overall, when you look at the Minnesota offense they’ll likely go as far as the passing game takes them. Upfront you have all five starters back, with 182 career starts, on the line. In the backfield, you have one of the nation’s best tailbacks in Mohamed Ibrahim. He’s by far the best player, but the key player will be what Morgan can do to give them one other dimension. If he can give them close to 2019 numbers Minnesota has a chance to be a very good team. If his stats fall back to the other seasons they could be a team that flies around the middle of the West once again.

Key defensive player:

I think there is one key position to look at with Minnesota rather than just one player. Nyles Pinckney is a defensive tackle transfer from Clemson, and he’ll be paired with a familiar name in Micah Dew-Treadway up front. Those two will likely be the two down linemen in the middle for Minnesota and will be the key to their success.

In 2020, Minnesota was a team that was absolutely decimated by opposing rushing attacks. The Gophers allowed a whopping 6.3 yards per carry which ranked No. 124 out of 127 teams a year ago. Teams just simply turned, handed it off and could move the ball with ease by gashing the Gophers front seven.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 14 Georgia Southern at Minnesota
Micah Dew-Treadway (No. 18)
Photo by David Berding/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Minnesota was a team that was greatly impacted by COVID so you can’t take those numbers at face value, but it still is a shocking output for a power five team (only UMass, UNLV, and Bowling Green were worse).

If Minnesota wants to get back to competing for the division title they will have to start up front as they look to get much better production from the defensive line than they did a year ago. It will start with Pinckney and Treadway in the middle to help get them where they need to be.

2021 season outlook:

Minnesota comes into the season ranked No. 1 in returning experience by Phil Steele. ESPN ranks the Gophers No. 25 overall when looking at returning production. However you slice it, Minnesota brings a lot back.

As mentioned earlier they return quarterback Tanner Morgan, running back Mohamed Ibrahim and a big experienced offensive line. The run game should be great, but the passing game will need more from Morgan and the wideout group who will now be without Baltimore Ravens draft pick Rashod Bateman.

On the other side of the ball, the run defense will be the main thing to watch for, as they suffered tremendously in that department last year. Ten defensive starters are back, and COVID will hopefully not impact their roster again, so you would expect the numbers to be much more normal this year, but improvements will need to be fairly large.

Iowa v Minnesota Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

The Gophers open with Ohio State in Week 1 before getting into non-conference play against Miami (Ohio). They then travel to Colorado and take on Bowling Green at home. In October, the Gophers travel to Purdue and then take on Nebraska and Maryland at home. The back half of the schedule isn’t kind as the Gophers have road trips to Indiana, Northwestern and Iowa before taking on Wisconsin at home.

Overall, it’s hard to know what this team will be but I expect a bounce-back in 2021. A 4-1 start is very possible and I believe they can win a good amount of their remaining games on their schedule that appear to be toss-ups (Nebraska, Northwestern, Illinois). The win total currently sits at seven which is probably accurate, but 8-4 seems more likely than 6-6 right now.