Gophers Football ’22 Opponents Ranked by Difficulty

Photo: Jesse Johnson - USA TODAY Sports

The Golden Gophers are set to kickoff their 2022 football schedule exactly 8 weeks from tonight, and they are looking to build off of last year’s up-and-down, but ultimately successful, 2021 campaign.

It included a loss to Bowling Green at home and a victory over a streaking Badgers team to close the regular season and Paul Bunyan’s Axe. When the dust settled, Minnesota finished with a 9-4 (6-3) record. Still, there was a lot of meat left on the bone.

PJ Fleck’s Gophers return a handful of key pieces on both offense and defense, but will also have to replace a lot of talent in certain areas. They lost four of five starters on the offensive line, lost two defensive ends to the NFL, and two of the brightest young running backs in the country to the transfer portal.

But they aren’t the only team in the Big Ten to lose key pieces from last season. That’s what college football is all about. So let’s take a look at the Minnesota Gophers 2022 schedule, what’s changed and what’s remained the same for each opponent and then rank them from least to most difficult.

12. New Mexico State | September 1, 2022

The Aggies are coming off a 2-10 regular season but have a new, very familiar face. Jerry Kill was named the head coach at New Mexico State on November 29th, 2021. Kill and company have a large rebuild project on their hands out in the desert and his 2022 squad doesn’t have much to offer, in terms of talent.

Contrary to years past, don’t expect PJ Fleck to implement a conservative gameplan on opening night this season. It’s unlikely he’s forgotten what Kill said about him, after Fleck was hired to take over for what was left of Kill’s old regime in 2017. I expect Minnesota to win this game handily and start the 2022 season 1-0.

11. Western Illinois | September 10, 2022

The Minnesota Gophers’ easiest matchups of the year are in weeks one and two. The Western Illinois Leathernecks are coming off a 2-9 campaign and, much like New Mexico State, are breaking in a brand new coaching staff.

Coach Myers Hendrickson was hired and named the new head coach on December 17th, 2021. I expect PJ Fleck to return to his bland non-conference self in this one. Grind out the clock, run the ball 75% of the time, and play ultra conservative football. But that’s all it should really take for the Gophers to pull this one out.

10. Colorado | September 17, 2022

Colorado is coming off a disappointing 4-8 season in 2021. These two teams faced off last year, and the Gophers pounded the Buffaloes in Boulder, 30-0. The Minnesota defense was stifling all game, and I don’t expect that to change much this time around.

Sure, 155 of the yards accumulated on the ground that day came from two freshman, Ky Thomas (Kansas) and Mar’Keise Irving (Oregon), who left in the offseason via the NCAA transfer portal. Minnesota, however, returns Trey Potts to their backfield. And legend has it that — after his 121 yards and 3 touchdowns last fall in Boulder — is now worshipped on the CU campus like a mythical greek god.

Part of my confidence comes from another familiar face, this one in the Buffaloes play calling booth; former Minnesota Offensive Coordinator, Mike Sanford Jr, who called the plays for last year’s Gopher stampede in Boulder. Fired after the 2021 season, Sanford Jr was often ridiculed by by fans and media for his play-calling, conservativatism, and bad schemes. It worked vs Colorado, which may explain why he’s now up in their booth.

The Buffaloes lost a boatload of players to the portal, after last season, including lead rusher Jared Broussard, who will now take handoffs at Michigan State. Key losses from an already lackluster roster in 2021 combined with an incompetent offensive coordinator. A Minnesota Gophers team with aspirations of winning the Big Ten West, should take this game (at home) with relative ease. But, you know how that goes.

9. Rutgers | October 29, 2022

In 2022, the Scarlet Knights of Piscataway, NJ come to Dinkytown for a late-October matchup. Rutgers finished 5-8 last season. Their final loss of the season came via a bowl game birth that was only granted because a bowl-eligible team had to forfeit.

Coach Greg Schiano, a mentor of PJ Fleck, has done a solid job through two seasons in New Jersey. Recruiting has picked up and the Knights have been winning more games than any time in recent history. But, expectations are down entering the 2022 season.

The Scarlet Knight offense was bad last year, finishing 120th out of 130 teams in points per game (19.7). With another brutal schedule on tap in the Big Ten East, getting to a bowl-eligible six wins will be a battle. I expect the Minnesota Gophers to come out with a win, in this one, and it shouldn’t take a lot of points to do it.

8. Northwestern | November 12, 2022

Northwestern rotates every other season between Big Ten West supremacy and complete garbage. In 2018 they were Big Ten West Champions. Then, they were garbage in 2019. Fast forward to 2020, they’re West Champions again. But then last year, garbage again.

Following that pattern, you’d assume this will be an up year for Northwestern, right? I highly doubt it. Instead, I’m expecting this year’s Wildcats to finish at or near the 3-9 (1-8) record their 2021 team registered.

Pat Fitzgerald has my respect, no doubt. But I think it’s safe to assume his better days are behind him. The Wildcats bring back a solid running back, in Evan Hull, and some key pieces to the secondary. But in total, Northwestern returns only five starters from last year’s defense, which gave up 29 points per game and let the Minnesota Gophers run all over them at home, even after PJ Fleck ran out of running backs.

I don’t see Northwestern having the capability to flip a switch and suddenly contend in the Big Ten West, just months out from a one-win conference season.

7. @ Illinois | October 15, 2022

Illinois looks to start up year-two under head coach, Bret Bielema, a very familiar face to the Gophers. The Fighting Illini are coming off a 5-7 campaign last season, one that had some very up and down moments. Illinois stunned the Gophers in a low-scoring 14-6 snore-fest at Huntington Bank Stadium. They also found a way to beat Penn State a couple weeks earlier and in-state rival Northwestern to finish the season.

But in week 2, Bielama & Co fell to UTSA (University of Texas San Antonio), of the Conference-USA and later in the season, became one of only two Big Ten teams that fell to Rutgers.

In 2022, the Illini return some solid offensive pieces from a unit that struggled to move the ball last year. Among those returnees are running back Chase Brown and four of five offensive lineman. They also landed quarterback transfer, Tommy DeVito, formerly of Syracuse.

Defensively, Illinois returns key defensive lineman, Keith Randolph, and their secondary looks to be an early strength. Expectations are the highest they’ve ever been under Bret Bielema. But personally, they’ll be lucky if they get bowl eligible.

6. @ Nebraska | November 5, 2022

The Cornhuskers were probably one of, if not the weirdest teams in all of college football, last season. They were relatively competitive in every single game, but only managed a 3-9 (1-8) record. The Minnesota Gophers extended their win streak vs Nebraska, with a 30-23 victory in Minneapolis.

PJ Fleck has owned the Huskers since he arrived (4-1) and, rumor has it, Scott Frost calls him Papa Fleck. Nebraska football has been rather disappointing under Frost, and expectations are higher than ever, in Lincoln, and the fans are sick of losing.

To fill holes across the roster, Nebraska brought in a whopping 15 transfers, from all around the country. Headliners include (QB) Casey Thompson from Texas, (DE) Ochaun Mathis from TCU, and (DL) Stephon Wynn Jr from Alabama.

With Adrian Martinez off to Kansas State, Thompson looks like the new starting quarterback. Offensively, Nebraska brings back key pieces on the offensive line, at running back (Rahmir Johnson) and wide receiver (Omar Manning).

On defense, the Huskers return Luke Reimer and Garrett Nelson but most of the personnel will be new. This is a Nebraska team packed with talent. But in the same breath, talent has never been the issue under Scott Frost. We’ll se if, in year five, Scott Frost can finally get Nebraska to a bowl game.

5. Purdue | October 1, 2022

The Boilermakers are riding high off a 9-win season under Jeff Brohm, the most wins the program has seen since 2003. One of Purdue’s four losses last season came vs the Gophers, who took care of business in West Lafayette, winning 20-13.

At 4-1 in their career matchups, PJ Fleck has had his way with Jeff Brohm. The Boilermakers lost some key players to the draft this year, including defensive end George Karlaftis, and wide receiver David Bell. Wide receiver Milton Wright is no longer with the team, either. Brohm does get quarterback, Aidan O’Connell, back along with tight end, Payne Durham.

The Boiler defense made strides in 2021, but they’ve lost a lot of talent from that side of the ball. So repeating that success is yet to be seen. Purdue will have to find new weapons on offense, and continued growth on defense in order for them to build on 2021’s success.

4. @ Michigan State | September 24, 2022

An 11-2 record, with a win over Pitt in the Peach Bowl, has to be considered a massive success for second-year head coach Mel Tucker and the Michigan State Spartans. They lose star running back, Kenneth Walker, who was drafted #41 overall in the 2022 NFL draft.

But they return plenty of talent, as well. It starts with quarterback, Payton Thorne and wide receiver Jayden Reed returning on the offensive side. Defensively, the Spartans have struggled in their back seven. To address some of those weaknesses, Tucker dipped into the transfer portal and added to his linebacking core with Jacoby Windmon, and the secondary with CB, Ameer Speed.

I expect the Spartans to take a step back, even after their additions on the defensive side of the ball. For the Gophers to win, they’ll need to slow the Spartans offense and take advantage of potential weaknesses on the defense.

3. Iowa | November 19, 2022

The Iowa Hawkeyes are coming off a 10-4 season and a West Division crown. The linchpin game of their season came in Iowa City vs the Gophers. Minnesota controlled the clock all afternoon, holding the ball for 40 of 60 minutes.

They won the line of scrimmage and stifled the black and gold run game. Normally, that’s a patented PJ Fleck victory. But not that day. Instead, it was Iowa who found a way to win in crunch time, 27-22. Instead of hopping into the driver’s seat for a West division championship with a win, the Gophers fell to the Hawkeyes for the seventh-straight time and PJ Fleck remained winless vs their head coach Kirk Ferentz.

Iowa returns most of their roster, but they did lose some key pieces. All American and Rimington award winning center Tyler Linderbaum, is gone. Running back, Tyler Goodson, is out too. Spencer Petras, however, is back. Though, I’m not sure Iowa fans see that as a positive.

The Hawkeye offense will have to improve if they want to repeat as Big Ten West champions. For the Gophers, this is a must-win; not only in their quest for a West title, but to return Floyd of Rosedale back to Minneapolis.

2. @ Wisconsin | November 26, 2022

The regular season finale will be in Madison and, beyond many other possibilities, Paul Bunyan’s Axe will be on the line. The Wisconsin Badgers are coming off an interesting 2021 campaign. They stumbled out of the gate to a 1-3 start, but then rattled off seven-straight wins, entering the season finale at Huntington Bank Stadium.

A win would have sent Wisconsin to the Big Ten Championship game, yet again. But those Indianapolis dreams didn’t come to fruition in 2021. Instead, the Gophers bullied the Badgers to a 23-13 victory. So both teams sat at home the next weekend, while Iowa took their shot at Michigan. And The Axe sits in Dinkytown.

The Badgers lost some key players from last season’s squad. Linebacker Leo Chenal, who led the team with 115 tackles (18 TFL), is gone. Tight end Jake Ferguson, who led the team in receptions (46) and touchdowns (3), is no longer on campus either.

They do return some key pieces. Quarterback Graham Mertz, running back Braelon Allen (1,268 yds, 12 TD), defensive lineman Keeanu Benton, and linebacker Nick Herbig, who led the 2021 team with 9 sacks.

The Badgers hope they can find some consistency through the air with Graham Mertz. Their passing game has been pretty awful over the last few seasons and his lack of development is a big part of that. Having Braelon Allen can make up for a lot, especially with a solid offensive line like what Wisconsin always has.

The Badgers defense should be good yet again. As long as defensive coordinator, Jim Leonhard, is in Madison that will always be the case. Wisconsin is the clear favorite in the Big Ten West. ESPN says the Gophers and Badgers will battle it out for Big Ten West supremacy in 2022. If true, this late November matchup will have a lot more on the line than Paul Bunyan’s Axe.

1. @ Penn State| October 22, 2022

The Penn State Nittany Lions had a rather disappointing season in 2021, finishing 7-6, far below Happy Valley expectations. They started off hot, running the table to 5-0 and and ranking top-4 in the country. Then, they lost to Iowa and the wheels fell off.

Every year, Penn State hosts a home game that’s hyped up as the “White Out Game”. That’s 110,000 screaming PSU fans wearing all white and drugged up by a ballyhooed tradition that makes the stands at Beaver Stadium look like a massive modern style, open concept house.

Normally, such Happy Valley festivities are dedicated to matchups vs Ohio State or Michigan. In 2022, the Minnesota Gophers get the honor. All jokes aside, it’s one of the hardest college football environments to play in, and I expect the Nittany Lions to come back to form this fall.

Sean Clifford returns at quarterback, but there’s not a ton returning on offense, beyond him. Defensively, PJ Mustipher returns at defensive tackle and linebacker, Curtis Jacobs, is back too. Tons of talent left for the NFL, but at Penn State and under James Franklin, you don’t rebuild. You reload.

The Nittany Lions have a lot of up and coming talent, and add on the Whiteout game environment, this game looks like the toughest game on the Minnesota Gophers’ 2022 schedule.

Max Carroll | Minnesota Sports Fan