Previewing the Gophers upcoming 2021 opponents Pt. 2

June 16, 2021: We’re only 78 days away from Gophers’ football kicking off their 2021 campaign at TCF Bank against the Ohio State Buckeyes. Let’s now look through the second half of the Gophers’ 2021 schedule. Here is a link to a story previewing the first five opponents.

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WEEK 7: (Sat., Oct. 16) vs. Nebraska

  • 2020 record: (3-5)

Since Nebraska joined the Big Ten in 2011, it has been on the wrong end of many jokes — thanks in large part to its toxic fanbase. It has finished a season with nine wins only once since the 2015 season, and the Cornhuskers’ faithful seems to still think its the 1980s. This season head coach Scott Frost will look to improve on a 3-5 campaign from 2020.

The Cornhuskers’ strength in 2021 will be their defense. Nine of 11 starters return, and eight of the top nine tacklers from a season ago. The unit as a whole allowed only 5.46 yards per play last year. Nickel hybrid linebacker JoJo Domann will likely be the leader, after totaling 6.5 tackles for loss and 5 pass breakups in 2020.

Junior Quarterback Adrian Martinez will be the determining factor in this team’s success. After a breakout freshman season in 2018, where he threw for 2,617 yards and 17 touchdowns and added 629 yards and eight scores on the ground, Martinez turned in a disappointing 2019 season, throwing for 1,956 yards and 10 touchdowns to nine picks. It only got worse in 2020 where he averaged just seven yards per pass attempt, the lowest mark of his career. After averaging a league third-worst 23 points-per-game a season ago, Frost has brought in reinforcements in the form of USC transfer running back Markese Stepp, and former FCS All-American Montana wide receiver Samori Toure.

After knocking off the Cornhusker 24-17 a season ago, there is no reason why the Gophers cannot have the same success in 2021. Nebraska will need to see a MUCH improved Martinez this season if they want any chance of a turnaround, and to be honest, I don’t really see that happening, and the rest of this team is far from impressive.

WEEK 8: (Sat., Oct. 23) vs. Maryland

  • 2020 record: (2-3)

The Gophers got caught up in a serious battle with Maryland a season ago on the eve of Halloween. The OT-thriller saw quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa break out for over 400 yards of total offense and five touchdowns while running back Jake Funk had just under 250 yards from scrimmage to go along with one touchdown. For Minnesota Mo Ibrahim carried the ball a whopping 41 times for just over 200 yards and four touchdowns. The Gophers would come up just short on the heels of a missed extra point in OT giving the Terrapins a 45-44 victory.

Luckily for the Gophers, Funk is now a member of the Los Angeles Rams, but unfortunately, Tagovailoa is back for another season. Head coach Michael Locksley has turned Maryland into a darkhorse program in the conference, especially on the recruiting front, ranking as the No. 18 recruiting class in 2021. Heading into the upcoming season the Terrapins return 10 starters on the defensive side of the ball. The team’s leading tackler Chance Campbell departed for Ole Miss, but he is being replaced with five-star freshman
Terrence Lewis and four-star freshman Branden Jennings both of whom should have serious roles right away.

The offense will once again be led by Tagovailoa, while former five-star sophomore Rakim Jarrett could be in line for a breakout season. The team returns 95% of its receiving yards from 2020, but only 31% of its rushing production. The offensive line does lack depth, but this will be a very similar roster from a season ago. Maryland is still a very young team, with a coach that has not had a great amount of success, but this should certainly not be a team that the Gophers overlook. The fact that this game will be played at TCF Bank Stadium will help greatly, but it has all of the makings for another trap game.

WEEK 9: (Sat., Oct. 30) @ Northwestern

  • 2020 record: (7-2)/Big 10 West Champ. & won Citrus Bowl vs. Auburn

Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald has developed the Wildcats into one of the most consistent programs in the Big Ten. They won their first five contests of 2020 until getting upset by Michigan State. The slight hiccup didn’t get them too out of sync, as the Wildcats gave Ohio State all they could handle in the Big Ten Championship and followed that up by taking down a formidable SEC opponent Auburn in the Citrus Bowl.

2021 might be Fitzgerald’s toughest head coaching job in quite a while, as Northwestern returns only two offensive starters and four defensive starters from a season ago. Quarterback Peyton Ramsey is off to the pro ranks, while offensive lineman Rashawn Slater (2020 COVID opt-out) and cornerback Greg Newsome II were both selected in the first round of April’s NFL Draft. The quarterback position will likely have an open competition between former four-star Clemson QB Hunter Johnson and former four-star South Carolina QB Ryan Hillinski. Offense has never been Northwestern’s specialty under Fitzgerald and I don’t think 2021 will be any different.

The defensive side of the ball has been the Wildcats’ calling card, and although they have so much production departing in the forms of Paddy Fisher and Newsome II, there is still talent left on the roster. Big Ten freshman of the year cornerback Brandon Joseph returns after hauling in six interceptions a season ago and linebacker Chris Bergin brings his 78 tackles in 2020 back to Evanston for another season.

Northwestern is not as fortunate as programs like Ohio State or Michigan to be able to reload talent every season, so losing 16 starters can be quite the task to come back from. 2021 will likely be a rebuilding year for the Wildcats, but that does not mean they will be a push-over on their home field given the program that Fitzgerald has built.

WEEK  10: (Sat., Nov. 6) vs. Illinois

  • 2020 record: (2-6)

Bret Bielema has returned to the Big Ten — this time as the head coach of the Fighting Illini. The former Wisconsin and Arkansas head coach will be taking over an Illinois team that went an uninspiring 2-6 a season ago. 15 total starters will be returning to Champagne, Ill., but that isn’t always helpful, especially when those starters weren’t very good.

Longtime starting QB Brandon Peters is back for another season, but his top receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe is now a member of the Jacksonville Jaguars. A season ago, Peters relied far too much on Imatorbhebhe in the passing attack, so his departure may prove to be costly. They will have an above-average offensive line for running back Chase Brown and Mike Epstein to run behind, but their top starter from 2020 Kendrick Green is now in the NFL. The Fighting Illini’s offense in 2021 will be far from anything to worry about.

There is plenty of work to do on the defensive side of the ball, after giving up 34.9 points per contest in 2020, but all-conference linebacker Jake Hansen does return. Overall, there are holes up and down this roster, and there is a reason why Illinois is favored to finish last in the conference.

WEEK 11: (Sat., Nov. 13) @ Iowa

  • 2020 record: (6-2)/Music City Bowl vs. Missouri canceled due to COVID

Many of the so-called “experts” view Iowa as one of the best teams in the Big Ten, and a serious contender for the western division crown. Although they certainly should be viewed as a good team, I don’t see what the sure-fire, nationally-ranked hype is all about.

Defensive lineman Dayvion Nixon and Chauncey Golston are both off to the NFL, while the defense as a whole returns seven starters. The Hawkeyes are often known for the boring style of a strong defense and running game, and this year will likely be much of the same. There is plenty of talent all over the defensive side of the ball. After allowing only 16 points per game in 2020 I see it very unlikely they find the same success, but this defense will still be one of the best in the conference.

The main reason that I am lower on this team than most, is in large part due to its quarterback situation. Now junior quarterback Spencer Petras was okay last season and he sorta’ got better as the season went on, but he certainly wasn’t anything special. His 57.1 completion percentage was far from promising and his 9-5 touchdown to interception ratio was very lackluster. After losing his top target Ihmir Smith-Marsette to the NFL, I can’t really see Petras making a big jump in production like everyone is expecting

Quarterback play is almost directly correlated with the difference between good and great college teams and I see this team sticking right in the middle of the good territory. I fully expect Iowa to be in the seven to eight-win territory, but I don’t completely get the New Year’s Six bowl hype. The Hawkeyes will obviously still present a very tough game especially in Iowa City, but there is zero reason why the Gophers can’t win back the Floyd of Rosedale.

WEEK 12: (Sat., Nov. 20) @ Indiana

  • 2020 record: (6-2)/lost Outback Bowl vs. Ole Miss

Indiana was arguably the biggest surprise of the 2020 college football season — totaling six wins, a closely contested game with Ohio State and a trip to Outback Bowl against Ole Miss. Tom Allen has not become one of the hottest names in coaching while Indiana is one of the hottest programs in the country.

Standout quarterback Michael Penix Jr., unfortunately, tore his ACL late last season, but he returns for his redshirt-junior season with the Hoosiers. In 2020 he averaged 274.1 passing yards per game with 14 touchdowns and only four interceptions. He will be without some of his top weapons, wide receiver Whop Philyor and running back Stevie Scott III are both off to the NFL. Standout wide receiver Ty Fryfogle does return for his final collegiate season, after totaling 721 yards and seven touchdowns in 2020. As a unit, the Hoosiers’ offense returns eight starters, and if the trio of former four-star Florida State WR D.J. Matthews, Texas A&M transfer WR Camron Buckley and former five-star USC RB Stephen Carr step up we could possibly see an even better offense in 2021.

The defense returns nine starters, but most notably they will lose safety Jemar Johnson who is now with the Denver Broncos. Their defense as a whole is loaded with talent across the board, and there is no reason why they can’t find the same success. In a year where Ohio State might be a bit down, don’t be shocked if the Hoosiers are in contention for a Big Ten title late in the season. I expect this to be the Gophers’ toughest game outside of Ohio State all season.

WEEK 13: (Sat. Nov. 27) vs. Wisconsin

  • 2020 record: (4-3)

Wisconsin is another team that I struggle to see why the consensus is so high on. Now, redshirt-sophomore quarterback, Graham Mertz struggled mightily in his first season starting, and its offense as a whole looked far less explosive without Jonathan Taylor. With seven returning starters on offense and eight on defense, they will be contending for the Big Ten West title again, but I am not fully sold.

Now redshirt-freshman running back Jalen Berger showed flashes last season in only four games averaging five yards per carry. Much of the Badgers’ hype for this season is driven by the hope of a Breger breakout, but I think people are counting on far too much from a guy with only 60 career carries. Although Wisconsin makes it look easy, it is not that easy to have an All-Big Ten running back every season. They will still have a dominant offensive line and less than explosive offensive weapons once again and I just feel like people are writing down Mertz and Berger to have breakout campaigns before they’ve actually shown it.

In 2020 the Badgers allowed only 17.4 points per game and they return all but three starters. Linebacker Leo Chenal will be the team’s leader on that side of the ball. It will be hard to be as dominant as a season ago, but Wisconsin’s defense will likely be one of the best in the conference for another season.

Don’t get me wrong, I would not be shocked at all if Wisconsin ends up in Indianapolis playing for a Big Ten championship once again, but I think it is far from a shoo-in. There are plenty of questions across this roster especially on the offensive side of the ball. There is ZERO reason why the Gophers cannot get back the ax.

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