The college football season is finally here. It’s a great time for football fans who like to put on their favorite college jersey, have some friends over and watch their team take the field. It also marks the official start of tailgating season, which makes the college game a day-long adventure.
There’s a lot of excitement around many teams. Everybody has potential, and with a new four-team playoff system established, there will be a true and undeniable national champion at the end of the year. The University of Minnesota is one of several teams to open its regular season Thursday night.
The Gophers host Eastern Illinois at 6 p.m. at TCF Bank Stadium. Minnesota is a program on the rise after winning eight games last year, including four straight in Big Ten play for the first time in 40 years. The Panthers are an FCS program (formerly Division 1-AA), but that doesn’t mean the Gophers can or will take them lightly. Here are five reasons the Gophers will be focused Thursday , aren’t looking ahead and should come away with a comfortable win.
Minnesota’s openers haven’t been blowouts
High major college football teams generally schedule weak opponents early in the season to get ready for conference play, but that’s been no guarantee for Minnesota wins in recent years. The Gophers won’t take Eastern Illinois for granted because they can’t afford to. Minnesota has won five of its last six season openers, but the Gophers certainly haven’t blown anybody out. They beat UNLV, New Mexico State and Western Illinois last year, but they didn’t race out to huge early leads. Minnesota has also lost to North Dakota State in the Jerry Kill era, and lost to New Mexico State in 2011. Kill also beat Minnesota 34-23 when he was head coach at Northern Illinois in Tim Brewster’s final year with the Gophers. Other than beating UNLV 51-23 to start last season, they haven’t won a season opener in the last five years by more than seven points. Kill said Thursday will be like a bowl game for Eastern Illinois.
Eastern Illinois has weapons without QB Jimmy Garoppolo
Eastern Illinois was one of the better FCS teams last year with an NFL-caliber quarterback in Jimmy Garoppolo, and they’re still ranked in the top-15 of that division with other talent back this year. Look For Jalen Whitlow and Andrew Manley to split time at quarterback for the Panthers Thursday night. Eastern Illinois averaged nearly 49 points per game last season and nearly 600 yards of total offense. The Panthers also have one of their top running backs returning and a few receivers who could challenge a Gophers secondary that’s predicted to have a big season.
Gophers are still young despite 20+ seniors
Minnesota has made improvements in every season under Kill, most notably winning eight games last year. But reality set in that the Gophers program still has a ways to go after losing to Syracuse in their bowl game last year. The team has 25 seniors, but many true freshmen and redshirt freshman are expected to play both Thursday and throughout the course of the season. A team that young will make mistakes throughout the year, one just hopes they won’t cost them a game or momentum at a crucial time.
Gophers need to establish passing game
Minnesota could have won more than eight games last year if it had a more consistent offense that finished drives with touchdowns. Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner shared quarterback time, and neither did enough to take over the job. Nelson transferred after the season and has since been in legal trouble, while Leidner has now become the clear cut No. 1 quarterback despite only three touchdown passes and averaging less than 70 yards passing per game last year. He’s also now the leader of the offense and will need to find chemistry with several weapons, including Maxx Williams, K.J. Maye, Drew Wolitarsky, Isaac Fruechte, Donovahn Jones and others. The Gophers were last in the Big 10 in passing last year, so the biggest key to Minnesota’s success this year is the offense performing with Leidner. That also means he will have to run less and stay healthy.
FCS teams have history of beating Division I teams
Appalachian State beat Michigan in the “Big House” in 2007. North Dakota State, annual contenders for a national title in FCS, beat a highly-ranked Kansas State team last year. These games can be dangerous for the high major programs because they’re supposed to win, but it’s humiliating if they lose, especially at home. The Gophers have lost to North Dakota State, they lost to New Mexico State at home in Kill’s first season. They did win at New Mexico State last year, but it was closer than a 44-21 final score would show. They’re the type of games where if you don’t get out to a lead early and the longer the opponent stays in the game, the better chance they have to win.
All that said, I expect the Gophers to win comfortably. The players know how important this season is for Kill and the program, and a lot of confidence can be restored in the team with a big win.