Schedule analysis: Minnesota

We've waited long enough, and with the 2012 season in the not too distant future, it's time to break down each Big Ten team's complete schedule. We'll follow the same format as last year.

Let's kick things off with the Minnesota Golden Gophers.

Nonconference opponents (with 2011 records)

Aug. 30: at UNLV (2-10)

Sept. 8: New Hampshire (8-4)

Sept. 15: Western Michigan (7-6)

Sept. 22: Syracuse (5-7)

Legends Division games

Sept. 29: at Iowa

Oct. 13: Northwestern

Nov. 3: Michigan

Nov. 17: at Nebraska

Nov. 24: Michigan State

Crossover games

Oct. 20: at Wisconsin (protected)

Oct. 27: Purdue

Nov. 10: at Illinois

No plays


Ohio State

Penn State

Gut-check game: Northwestern. Sandwiched between tough road trips to Iowa City and Madison, the Northwestern game falls after an open week and looms very large for Jerry Kill's squad. Minnesota recorded its two Big Ten wins in 2011 at home, and needs to defend its turf to have any shot at becoming bowl-eligible. Although Northwestern won last year's meeting 28-13, Gophers quarterback MarQueis Gray rushed for 147 yards on 26 carries. It's tough to see the Gophers winning a third straight against Iowa or beating Wisconsin at Camp Randall, so the Northwestern game is huge to prevent an 0-3 start to league play.

Trap game: Purdue. There is no obvious trap game on Minnesota's schedule, and the Gophers are in no position to take any opponent lightly. The Purdue game comes after the rivalry test at Wisconsin and before the Jug game against Michigan, which embarrassed the Gophers 58-0 last season at the Big House. Purdue could be a dangerous team in the Leaders Division, but Minnesota certainly has an opportunity, like with the Northwestern game, to record a key Big Ten win at home.

Snoozer: New Hampshire. There's actually no true snoozer on Minnesota's slate, although a matchup with FCS New Hampshire might not generate much interest in the Twin Cities. Then again, New Hampshire has been very strong over the years -- Chip Kelly served as its offensive coordinator from 1999-2006 -- and Minnesota must be careful after falling to North Dakota State, the 2011 FCS national champion, last September at TCF Bank Stadium. UNLV might be the pick here, although it's the season opener.

Non-con challenge: Western Michigan. Minnesota had no pass rush in 2011 and ranked 107th nationally in pass efficiency defense. That doesn't bode well against a Western Michigan team that almost always boasts one of the country's best air attacks. Senior quarterback Alex Carder returns for the Broncos, who nearly knocked off Illinois last year in Champaign and are no stranger to Big Ten competition. Although the return of cornerback Troy Stoudermire boosts Minnesota's secondary, the Gophers have to find a way to pressure Carder.

Telltale stretch: The schedule does Minnesota few favors, but the Gophers have a chance to make some noise after the trip to Wisconsin. They return home for consecutive games against Purdue and Michigan before visiting Illinois, where they've won their past three contests (2010, 2008 and 2003). Although Michigan will be an extremely tough test for Kill's crew, the Gophers have great opportunities against both Purdue and Illinois. With a tough start to Big Ten play and a very tough finish (Nebraska, Michigan State), Minnesota has to capitalize during this stretch.

Analysis: Minnesota should be a better team in Year 2 of the Kill era, but the schedule isn't easy by any means. It's critical Minnesota wins the opener against a poor UNLV team before facing three tricky nonconference opponents. Aside from Illinois, the Big Ten road trips look very tough, and Minnesota also gets arguably the league's top two teams (Michigan and Michigan State) on its home field. There are no gimmes here at all and it will take at least a few upsets for Minnesota to get to the six-win mark and become bowl-eligible. The key is to go at least 3-1 during non-league play and avoid an 0-3 start to the Big Ten portion, which is why the Northwestern game means so much.