Big Ten

Big Ten

Forget the toughest schedule in the Big Ten. Minnesota might have the hardest schedule in the country this season.

Yes, the Gophers’ steady climb up the Big Ten power rankings on an annual basis is meeting increasingly difficult competition, and you can chalk that up to a tough in-conference draw and a menacing non-conference foe.

The Gophers will face both the Nos. 1 and 2 teams in the preseason rankings: a Nov. 7 trip to Columbus to play the Buckeyes and the season-opening hosting of TCU in the Twin Cities.

“We're one of the schools going to be playing No. 1 in the country and No. 2. So we'll find out who we are early, and that's not all bad. I mean, I think it's really made our offseason more productive, more intensity because we're starting off with a great football team. But we look forward to the challenge,” Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill said at Big Ten Media Days last month. “We know their program (TCU) well. Didn't play very well a year ago. And our kids know that. And so I think that's a great game for us to open up and see where we're at.”

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Minnesota went to Fort Worth last season, showing up for a non-conference thumping at the hands of TCU, the eventual Big 12 co-champ that narrowly missed out on the College Football Playoff. The Gophers lost that game, 30-7, with Trevone Boykin accumulating 350 total yards and throwing a pair of touchdown passes. It was over in a hurry thanks to a 24-0 halftime score, and usually fantastic David Cobb rushed for just 41 yards.

Things could get even trickier for Minnesota this season, too. The Horned Frogs are expected to be one of the nation’s best teams, Boykin to be one of the country’s top players. The Gophers lost Cobb this offseason.

And all that is two months before Kill & Co. have to gameplan for the loaded Buckeyes, the reigning national champions who have a stud at every position — multiple studs at every position, for that matter — and are favored to repeat as college football’s kings.

But it’s not like a Kill-coached team to shrink away from a challenge. Only a touchdown separated the Gophers from the Buckeyes last season in the snow in Minnesota. There probably won’t be any snow for that TCU game in September, but that’s not stopping Kill.

“We're going to bring in a little bit of snow, some artificial snow in there, and see how they can handle that snow there in September,” he said.

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The Buckeyes and Frogs are for obvious reasons the biggest games on the Gophers’ schedule. But the tough games don’t stop there. Big Ten West foes like Wisconsin and Nebraska dot the lineup, too. If Minnesota wants to take the next step and reach the Big Ten title game, it can't lose all of those.

And there’s good reason to believe the Gophers will get at least one “W” out of that quartet. They beat the Huskers last season and came close against both the Buckeyes and Badgers.

“Last year we had one of the tougher schedules in the Big Ten. And it made us a better football team,” Kill said. “And if you beat those people, it's going to put you in a pretty good position. … Certainly as our schedule (indicates) this year, we're stepping it up a notch. And if we do well through that schedule, then good things are going to happen because I think people are going to go, ‘Hey, these guys play as tough a schedule as anybody.’”