The Minnesota Golden Gophers are in the rare position of going through a coaching change after what was – by most accounts – a successful season. New head coach P.J. Fleck inherited a relatively experienced team that could realistically contend for a Big Ten West title.
The 2017 schedule will present some significant challenges toward achieving that accomplishment, as the Big Ten conference as a whole looks to be fairly wide-open. A sneaky-tough series of road games only adds to the degree of difficulty.
Here now are Minnesota's 12 regular season games, ranked according to degree of difficulty from easiest to toughest.
12. Aug. 31 (Thursday) vs. Buffalo
The Bulls won just two games a season ago and are still in rebuilding mode. Fleck's Western Michigan squad beat them 38-0 last year.
11. Sept. 16 vs. Middle Tennessee
This is an up and coming program, but these Blue Raiders are not likely to be anywhere as talented as the version that won eight games a season ago. That said, quarterback Brent Stockstill is capable of putting up big numbers and challenging the Gopher defense.
10. Oct. 21 vs Illinois
Lovie Smith's Illini have a lot of veteran leadership and playmakers on both sides of the ball. However, he'll need more time to get his own recruits into the system before being a real threat to beat a veteran team like Minnesota on the road.
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9. Sept. 30 vs. Maryland
Everything said about Lovie Smith applies to DJ Durkin and the Terrapins. There is a lot of recruiting potential and perhaps some success on the horizon. Right now, Maryland will struggle to win these types of games – especially with the Gophers coming in fresh off a bye week.
8. Oct 14. vs Michigan State
This is not the Spartan team from two, three or four years ago. Mark Dantonio has seen his program experience a mass exodus of talent recently and hasn’t been able to restocl the cupboard. The Gophers can win this game by focusing on stopping the Spartan rushing attack.
7. Oct. 7 at Purdue
The trap-game factor comes into play here. Truth be told, however, Purdue's David Blough and Markell Jones are one of the more talented quarterback-running back combos in the country. The Gophers will need to bring their A-game to West Lafayette.
6. Sept. 9 at Oregon State
A trip to the West Coast nine days after a yawner of an opener against Buffalo could end up biting Fleck's bunch. The atmosphere in Corvallis has made less talented Oregon State teams tough outs for better clubs than what Minnesota will be in 2017.
5. Nov. 11 vs. Nebraska
The revamped offense and a 3-4 defense could present a new and unique set of challenges compared to what these Gophers have seen in the past from the Cornhuskers. Mike Riley's group looks like a tough matchup to a man for Minnesota.
4. Oct. 28 at Iowa
Trips to Iowa City are always dicey no matter how good you are – just ask the 2016 Michigan Wolverines. Iowa can still run the ball and stop the run with the best of them. Fleck and his staff may need to get creative to come away with a win in this one.
3. Nov. 18 at Northwestern
Pat Fitzgerald's Wildcats are always down for a dogfight. From a personnel standpoint, Northwestern might even have an edge against Minnesota. And when you factor in the game being play in Evanston, the chips are decidedly stacked against the Gophers.
2. Nov. 11 vs. Wisconsin
I'm not sure how much home field will matter to Minnesota against the Badgers. The Wisconsin faithful will certainly travel by the masses to the Twin Cities, offsetting any would-be advantage the Gophers might otherwise have had. After that, strap up for that smash-mouth brand of Wisconsin football that’s been a staple for decades – regardless of coaching or roster changes.
1. Nov. 4 at Michigan
This game will likely serve as little more than a measuring tool for Fleck and the Gophers to see how far away from conference and national relevance they actually are. In a short period of time, Jim Harbaugh has returned Michigan football to being a program that no longer rebuilds, but simply reloads.
— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. His work has appeared on SI.com, FoxSports.com, Yahoo! and Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.
(P.J. Fleck photo courtesy of www.gophersports.com)