College football is just around the corner -- we’re less than 12 weeks away from the Gophers’ season opener against New Mexico State on Aug. 30. So, with that in mind, I’ll be examining some story lines, players and trends to watch over the next few weeks. Here’s today’s installment:
The best and worst nonconference opponent of each Big Ten West team
(Teams listed in order of last year’s conference finish. The Big Ten East analysis will come Wednesday.)
Best: vs. BYU, Sept. 15. The Badgers return a loaded squad, and this team with College Football Playoff aspirations probably wished it had a tougher opponent as its nonconference feature game. But with Western Kentucky and New Mexico as the other two on the schedule, the Badgers, who routed the Cougars 40-6 in Provo last year, will have to impress in this one.
Worst: vs. New Mexico, Sept. 8. The Lobos are a mess, losing their final seven games last year and finishing 3-9. On top of that, coach Bob Davie was suspended for 30 days this offseason amid misconduct allegations.
Best: vs. Notre Dame, Nov. 3. The Wildcats, who finished 10-3 with eight consecutive victories in 2017, have one of the Big Ten’s marquee nonconference games on the schedule. This matchup against the Fighting Irish comes a week after Northwestern plays host to Wisconsin. Let’s hope it can match the drama of the last Wildcats-Irish meeting, when Northwestern won 43-40 in overtime in 2014.
Worst: vs. Akron, Sept. 15. The Zips played in the MAC title game and finished 7-7 last year, so this is no gimme. Duke is Northwestern’s other nonconference opponent.
Best: vs. Iowa State, Sept. 8. The battle for the Cy-Hawk Trophy hasn’t disappointed often, with five of the past seven decided by six points or fewer and Iowa State winning three of those tight games. The Hawkeyes rallied to win 44-41 in overtime last year.
Worst: vs. Northern Iowa, Sept. 15. This rivalry carries regional importance, with the Hawkeyes and FCS-level Panthers meeting for the first time since 2014. Iowa leads the series 16-1. The Hawkeyes’ other nonconference opponent is Northern Illinois, which won the last meeting, 30-27 in 2013.
Best: vs. Missouri, Sept. 15. The Boilermakers routed the Tigers 35-3 last September in Columbia, but Mizzou recovered to win six straight and make a bowl game. This one should be closer.
Worst: vs. Eastern Michigan, Sept. 8. The Eagles are projected for a last-place finish in the MAC West.
Best: vs. Colorado, Sept. 8. Brings back memories of the old Big Eight, doesn’t it? Huskers vs.Buffs is a rivalry that needs to be played from time to time. Colorado, which slipped to 5-7 last year, should be much improved.
Worst: vs. Akron, Sept. 1. This season opener against the Zips should be festive, since it marks Scott Frost’s debut as Huskers coach. But the Sept. 15 game vs. Sun Belt title contender Troy, coming off an 11-2 season, carries a little more weight.
Best: vs. Fresno State, Sept. 8. In coach Jeff Tedford’s first season in Fresno, the Bulldogs made a turnaround from 1-11 to 10-4 with a berth in the Mountain West title game. They return seven starters on both offense and defense, so this will be a challenge for the Gophers and second-year coach P.J. Fleck.
Worst: vs. New Mexico State, Aug. 30. The Aggies aren’t slouches – they made a bowl for the first time in 57 years in 2017 and won it – but they likely won’t move the needle as a season-opening opponent. Miami (Ohio) is the Gophers’ other nonconference opponent.
Best: vs. South Florida at Soldier Field, Sept. 15. The Fighting Illini ventured to Tampa last year and absorbed a 47-23 loss to the Bulls, who went on to a 10-2 season. Embattled coach Lovie Smith might want to show some improvement in this matchup.
Worst: vs. Western Illinois, Sept. 8. The Leathernecks are a decent FCS team that advanced to the playoffs last year, but will the intrastate matchup sell in Champaign?