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Reunions, intriguing trips eastward and a challenging November are the highlights of a 2022 Gophers football season that's only a week away. Next Thursday night at Huntington Bank Stadium, coach P.J. Fleck's squad will open the campaign against New Mexico State.

Coming off a 9-4 season that lost luster with upset losses to Bowling Green and Illinois, the Gophers have high hopes for 2022, and a run at the Big Ten West Division championship is in play.

The opener will mark the season's first reunion, this one with Jerry Kill. The former Gophers coach has criticized both the university for firing his lieutenant, Tracy Claeys, and Fleck, his former assistant at Northern Illinois, for his culture-changing comments upon taking the Minnesota job.

New Mexico State is part of a nonconference slate that also includes Western Illinois and Colorado, and that trio was a combined 8-27 last year.

Trips to Michigan State (Sept. 24) and Penn State (Oct. 22) will be challenging. The Big Ten West will be won in November, and the Gophers' month starts at Nebraska and closes with a visit from Iowa and a trip to Wisconsin. If the Gophers can pry Floyd of Rosedale away from the Hawkeyes and keep hold of Paul Bunyan's Axe, a division title could be in play.

Here's a look at the schedule and how it sets up:

Former Gophers coach Jerry Kill will bring his New Mexico State team to Minnesota to open the season.
Former Gophers coach Jerry Kill will bring his New Mexico State team to Minnesota to open the season.

Associated Press

Sept. 1 vs. New Mexico State

8 p.m., BTN

The skinny: Quite simply, the Aggies were one of the worst teams in the FBS last year, going 2-10 and allowing 40.4 points per game.

The Gophers win if … they take care of the football, and they don't get caught up in the Fleck-Kill feud.

The Gophers lose if … they turn the ball over multiple times, giving the Aggies hope.

Sept. 10 vs. Western Illinois

11 a.m., BTN

The skinny: Don't confuse the Fighting Leathernecks with an FCS power. They were 2-9 last year and 4-25 over the past three seasons.

The Gophers win if … they run the ball effectively; Tanner Morgan and his wideouts connect; and the defense puts in a workmanlike effort.

The Gophers lose if … they don't take this opponent seriously and everything goes haywire.

Sept. 17 vs. Colorado

2:30 p.m., ESPN2

The skinny: Reunion No. 2 is Mike Sanford, let go by Fleck after two seasons as Gophers offensive coordinator, returning to Minnesota as the Buffaloes offensive boss. Colorado, 4-8 last year, is picked to finish last in the Pac-12, and Sanford is trying to improve an offense that averaged 18.8 points per game in 2021.

The Gophers win if … they frustrate Buffaloes QB Brendon Lewis, and they realize last year's 30-0 Rocky Mountain High won't magically reappear.

The Gophers lose if … Lewis has improved vastly and gives Colorado an effective passing threat, and Colorado wins the turnover battle decisively.

Sept. 24 at Michigan State

Time, TV TBD

The skinny: The Spartans broke through with an 11-2 season last year as coach Mel Tucker relied heavily on transfers, including 1,600-yard rusher Kenneth Walker III. MSU hit the portal hard again, landing RBs Jarek Broussard from Colorado and Jalen Berger from Wisconsin.

The Gophers win if … their defense can keep QB Payton Thorne (3,233 passing yards, 27 TD passes last year) under control; and Morgan can take advantage of an MSU pass defense that allowed an FBS-worst 324.8 yards per game in 2021.

The Gophers lose if … Michigan State wins the battle in the trenches, running the ball effectively while limiting Minnesota's ability to control the clock.

Oct. 1 vs. Purdue (homecoming)

11 a.m., TV TBD

The skinny: Fleck and the Gophers have a four-game winning streak against Purdue, which went 9-4 last year. Aidan O'Connell (28 TD passes in 2021) might be the best QB the Gophers face this season.

The Gophers win if … they replicate the defensive formula they used to win last year, especially winning third-down situations (Purdue was 7-for-18).

The Gophers lose if … they have trouble running the ball to control the game's tempo; and Iowa transfer Charlie Jones makes a difference at wideout and in the return game for Purdue.

Oct. 15 at Illinois

11 a.m., TV TBD

The skinny: The Bret Bielema hex continued for the Gophers last season when the former Wisconsin coach ran his record vs. Minnesota to 8-0 with a 14-6 stunner for the Fighting Illini.

The Gophers win if … they avoid interceptions and perform much better than 3-for-13 on third-down situations.

The Gophers lose if … Illinois proves stout against the run. The Illini limited the Gophers to 2.5 yards per carry in 2021.

The Gophers are the opponent for Penn State’s “White Out” game.
The Gophers are the opponent for Penn State’s “White Out” game.

Associated Press

Oct. 22 at Penn State

6:30 p.m., TV TBD

The skinny: The Gophers make their first trip to Happy Valley since 2016, when they fell 29-26 in OT. This is Penn State's White Out game, and the Nittany Lions have won four of the past five such contests, all against ranked teams.

The Gophers win if … Morgan channels his 2019 self and approaches his 18-for-20 passing effort against Penn State; they match Penn State's intensity amid the White Out atmosphere; and they instill doubt into a Nittany Lions team that is 11-11 over the past two seasons.

The Gophers lose if … Penn State's talent, including freshman RB Nick Singleton, is as good as advertised; and they can't keep Nittany Lions QB Sean Clifford in check.

Oct. 29 vs. Rutgers

Time, TV TBD

The skinny … In Reunion No. 3, Fleck faces one of his coaching mentors, Greg Schiano, for the first time. Schiano led the Scarlet Knights to six bowl trips in his first stint with the school, and added another last year.

The Gophers win if … they play a disciplined game and avoid turnovers against a team that's limited on offense.

The Gophers lose if … they get caught looking ahead to the following week's game at Nebraska.

Nov. 5 at Nebraska

Time, TV TBD

The skinny: There's no love lost between Cornhuskers coach Scott Frost, who abhors sloganeering, and Fleck, who labeled last year's Gophers win as a triumph of culture over talent. There's some spice for the rivalry. And with the Huskers bringing in 15 transfers, it's now or never for Frost, 15-29 at Nebraska, to produce a winner.

The Gophers win if … their offensive and defensive lines have developed throughout the season and can handle the Huskers up front; and their kicking and punting games deal well with the often-windy conditions.

The Gophers lose if … Huskers QB Casey Thompson protects the football better than his predecessor, Adrian Martinez; and Minnesota's defense has trouble stopping Nebraska's run game.

Nov. 12 vs. Northwestern

Time, TV TBD

The skinny: Coach Pat Fitzgerald has worked wonders at Northwestern, winning West titles in 2018 and 2020. He'll need to pull a rabbit out of his hat to reach that level in 2022.

The Gophers win if … they start quickly on offense; and their defense limits RB Evan Hull, the Maple Grove native who rushed for 107 yards against Minnesota last year.

The Gophers lose if … they have Iowa and Wisconsin on their minds.

Minnesota hasn’t held Floyd of Rosedale at the end of a game since 2014.
Minnesota hasn’t held Floyd of Rosedale at the end of a game since 2014.

Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

Nov. 19 vs. Iowa

Time, TV TBD

The skinny: In 2019 and 2021, the Gophers would have advanced to the Big Ten Championship Game had they beaten Iowa and all other results stayed the same. Instead, they're 0-5 against the Hawkeyes under Fleck.

The Gophers win if … they outgain the Hawkeyes like they did last year (409-277), hold the ball as long as they did (40:02), but get better passing efficiency and avoid giving up big-play TDs.

The Gophers lose if … the Hawkeyes defense is its usual stingy self; Minnesota's passing game doesn't effectively complement the run; and Fleck plays things too close to the vest.

Nov. 26 at Wisconsin

Time, TV TBD

The skinny: From 2004 through 2017, Wisconsin won Paul Bunyan's Axe 14 consecutive times. Since Fleck has been in Dinkytown, the Gophers vs. Badgers rivalry has heated up, with Minnesota winning two of the five meetings, including last year's 23-13 win. The next step for the Gophers is to win two in a row. If they do so, the West title might be theirs.

The Gophers win if … they can play the type of defense that limited Badgers RB Braelon Allen to 47 yards and held Wisconsin to 4-for-14 on third downs; and Morgan can approach the 18.1 yards per completion of the 2021 game.

The Gophers lose if … Allen gets loose for 150 yards; QB Graham Mertz suddenly raises his level of play; and Wisconsin's defense is as good as it was last year.