This will be the second season in a row in which Fleck has squared off with Lance Leipold's Bulls squad. The two up-and-coming head coaches met last season when Fleck was at Western Michigan. Leipold is hoping to keep Thursday's game a bit closer and more competitive than the 38-0 route won by Western Michigan in 2016.
Buffalo at Minnesota
Kickoff: Thursday, Aug. 31 at 7 p.m. ET
TV Channel: Big Ten Network
Spread: Minnesota -26.5
Three Things to Watch
1. P.J. Fleck's interaction with his players
You'll get plenty of chances to see this, as Big Ten Network is sure to have plenty of cameras and angles dedicated to its fresh-faced coaching superstar. He is 100 percent energy, and it will be interesting to watch his players take it all in and project that energy onto the field. This is a game that Minnesota is favored to win handily, so those unfamiliar with Fleck may be surprised if and when the game gets out of hand and the Gopher coach is treating the affair as if his team is trailing by a touchdown the whole way.
2. Buffalo quarterback Tyree Jackson
The 6-foot-7, 245-pound monster of a man has a cannon for an arm and underrated quickness for a big guy. He can give Minnesota trouble in a lot of different ways, especially on deep balls and when he gets outside the pocket. The Gopher defensive line – led by Steven Richardson – will need to consistently apply pressure from the interior and force Jackson backwards in the pocket rather than forcing him outside. If Minnesota can't do exactly that right from the start, you could see Jackson hit on a long touchdown pass or run early on that keeps this game close a little longer than Fleck and Co. would like it to be.
3. Minnesota's running game
One of the biggest strengths of the Gopher offense is projected to be its elite running back duo of Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks. Both are complete backs with game-breaking speed in the open field and the size to survive short runs between the tackles. You could very well see Fleck take a conservative approach, opting to keep it simple and not show too many cards against an inferior opponent. If that's the case, look for Minnesota to control this one from start to finish with a heavy dose of Smith and Brooks pounding the ball at the Bulls behind what should be an improved offensive line.
From a pure talent standpoint, Buffalo is going to be outclassed in nearly every way. That said, the Bulls will be well-coached, as Lance Leipold is one of the better X’s and O's guys in the game. P.J. Fleck is smart enough to understand that, and as a result will keep it simple, minimize risks and let his team muscle its way to victory behind that aforementioned rushing attack. When Minnesota is on defense, look for the Gopher secondary to make life miserable for a Buffalo receiving corps full of question marks. The end result will be Tyree Jackson forcing balls into spaces he probably should avoid and trying to do too much when the ball is in his hands – leading to multiple turnovers. After a dicey first quarter, look for Fleck and the Gophers to “Row the Boat” to an easy victory in the season opener.
Prediction: Minnesota 45, Buffalo 10
— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. His work has appeared on SI.com, FoxSports.com, Yahoo!, Bleacher Report and SB Nation. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.
(Top photo courtesy of www.gophersports.com)