Dec 28, 2012; Houston, TX, USA; Minnesota Golden Gophers running back Rodrick Williams Jr. (35) rushes against the Texas Tech Red Raiders during the first quarter of the Car Care Bowl at Reliant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Gopher Football: Key stretch in schedule will determine bowl eligibility


Dec 28, 2012; Houston, TX, USA; A Minnesota Golden Gophers cheerleader performs during a game against the Texas Tech Red Raiders in the Care Care Bowl at Reliant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

With under three weeks to go until the season kicks off against UNLV, let’s take a look at the Gopher football schedule and put some serious thought and analysis into the key games — because what else can we do until Aug. 29?

Trap Game: San Jose State
San Jose State is no joke. The Spartans went 11-2 last year finishing the season ranked No. 21 in the AP poll. They nearly beat Stanford last year, losing 17-14 and will be returning quarterback David Fales, who is looking like a first round NFL draft pick.

San Jose State lost head coach Mike MacIntyre in the off-season to Colorado but former San Diego head coach Ron Caragher will take over for the Spartans in 2013. The game comes before the Big Ten season opener against Iowa, which also happens to be homecoming for the Gophers. The Gophers cannot overlook the Spartans — it’s as simple as that.

Key Stretch: @Indiana, Penn State, Wisconsin
These are all winnable games with an emphasis on finishing the season strong for Jerry Kill and his staff in year three. Beating Wisconsin in the second-to-last game of the season and bringing back to campus Paul Bunyan’s Axe would be big for the Gophers as it has been nearly a decade since it last resided in Dinkytown

Watch out for Indiana as they will be an improved team in year three of the Kevin Wilson era, but defensive lapses should allow the Gophers to make this a win.

While Penn State won eight games last year riding the coattails of a veteran defense and quarterback, the intensity of playing with a chip on their shoulders after getting crushed by the NCAA should start to wear off on the Nittany Lions starting this year.

Hide The Women and Children: @Michigan, @Northwestern, Nebraska
If the Gophers can escape this three-game stretch without getting embarrassed or avoid any major injuries to key players, I would consider it a win. All three of these teams are expected to crack the AP Top-25 early this year so just one victory in this stretch could catapult the Gophers to a breakthrough season.

Analysis:
The Gophers will be a better football team than they were last year, however that doesn’t necessarily mean they will improve upon their win total of six from a year ago. I see three games that are automatic wins (UNLV, @New Mexico State, Western Illinois) and two games that are likely losses (@Michigan, Nebraska). The remaining seven games (San Jose State, Iowa, @Northwestern, @Indiana, Penn State, Wisconsin, @Michigan State) are what I like to call match-up games. Match-up opponents have similar talent across the board. Now, some of these match-up games are unfavorable and some will be favorable. In the end I could see the outcomes going either way. For the Gophers to become bowl eligible they will need to win at least three of these match-up games.

Prediction: 7-5
The Gophers go 3-1 in the non-conference falling only to San Jose State. They bounce back against Iowa in the Big Ten opener before losing three in row to fall to 1-3 in the conference. The streaky Gophers turn the table by reeling off three more wins against Indiana, Penn State, and rival Wisconsin, giving Kill a signature win against the Badgers.  A setback against Michigan State in East Lansing leaves the Gophers with a 4-4 conference mark, their best since 2005 and a second consecutive bowl berth.

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