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Know your Northwestern football opponent, week 5: Minnesota

The Gophers lose a lot of production from last year, but they should be a solid bunch once again.

Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

With our Summer Guide now complete, you probably have a general sense of Northwestern's outlook for the coming season. But breaking down any given team's strengths and weaknesses doesn't paint a complete picture. To truly gauge a team's win-loss potential, analyzing the schedule is arguably just as important.

Come game week, we will have detailed, timely, matchup-based write-ups on each opponent, but in the interim, we present to you our Know Your Opponent series. It's our look ahead at all 12 teams on Northwestern's 2015 schedule. So by the time training camp rolls around, you'll have a fuller view of the upcoming season.

Today, we preview the Big Ten opener against Minnesota.

The Basics

Returning Starters: Offense: 5, Defense: 7
2014 Record: 8-5 (5-4 Big Ten)
Coach: Jerry Kill, 5th year (25-26 overall)

The Stats

The following metrics are courtesy of Bill Connelly of SB Nation and Football Outsiders. You can read more about the rankings and theory behind them here.

2014 S&P Overall Rank: 36th
2014 S&P Offense Rank: 44th
2014 S&P Defense Rank: 31st
2015 S&P Projection: 42nd

2014 Capsule

Minnesota, at one point last season, was 6-1 and on the precipice of establishing itself as a legitimate top-25 team in the country. All the Gophers had to do was go down to Champaign and beat the Illini. The game wasn't pretty but after three quarters Minnesota led 24-21. The results of the Gophers' fourth-quarter drives: missed field goal, fumble, punt, fumble, end of game. Illinois scored a touchdown early in the fourth quarter to take the lead and punted on its final five drives. But Minnesota couldn't make anything happen. Sure, Minnesota went on to hammer Iowa, play Ohio State as close as anyone would the rest of the season and beat Nebraska in Lincoln, but that loss at Illinois encapsulated the '14 campaign. Minnesota was a good football team. It had opportunities to win the Big Ten West. Plenty of them. But the Gophers could never break through and establish themselves.

Offensive overview

Last season the offense was all about David Cobb and the run game with a little play action sprinkled in to get tight end Maxx Williams involved. Now, those two weapons are off to the NFL and the burden will fall even more heavily on junior quarterback Mitch Leidner. Minnesota will still run the football more than they throw it, but the Gophers may have to be a bit more balanced this season. Replacing Cobb, who ran for over 1600 yards in 2014, will be impossible, especially considering the guys behind him-- Berkley Edwards and Rodrick Williams Jr.-- combined for just 53 carries last year.  It'll have to be a series of improvements across the board offensively that will help make up the difference.

Those series of improvements will have to start with Leidner. Basically the only skill position starter who returns from last year's team, he completed just over 50 percent of his passes and threw 11 touchdowns to eight interceptions. He also ran for 600 yards and 10 touchdowns. But this year, he doesn't have Cobb, who was the centerpiece of the offense, which Connelly described as "basically David Cobb right and David Cobb left." Minnesota will still base their offense heavily on the run, but Leidner making strides in the passing game will be key. Edwards and Williams Jr. are the only running backs with any experience. Williams Jr. is a bruiser who will get the first chance to take over for Cobb, but Edwards provided a nice change of pace in limited action last year. Still, it's unlikely that either will produce like David Cobb did. At wideout, KJ Maye and Drew Wolitarsky are the only returning players who caught more than six passes last year, so there are questions there as well.

Defensive overview

The Gopher defense will have to carry the squad this season. The run defense is solid but replacing All-Big Ten linebacker Damien Wilson will be an issue. But De'Vondre Campbell, the six-foot-five senior linebacker, is poised for a breakout year. On the line, Thieren Cockran will look to be even more dangerous off the edge in 2015 as the former two-star recruit has worked his way into becoming a really good player in the Big Ten. The secondary will also look to improve on a good 2014. Briean Boddy-Calhoun and Eric Murray combine to form one of the best cornerback tandems in the conference.

Three players to know

Mitch Leidner, QB - The junior is somewhat of a dual-threat at quarterback, but doesn't really run or throw particularly well. He'll have to step up on both areas for Minnesota to have a stable offense. He has a solid offensive line in front of him, but it'll be up to Leidner to take advantage of it.

De'Vondre Campbell, LB - Physically, Campbell is unmatched. His size and speed is overwhelming and he started to put it all together last season. As a senior, Campbell will be the center of the defense and will be called on to make plays from sideline to sideline.

Briean Boddy-Calhoun, CB - Coming off a knee injury that ended his 2013 season in September, no one knew quite what to expect out of Boddy-Calhoun in 2014. After a strong season that earned him All-Big Ten first team honors, the senior will look to build upon that success and bolster Minnesota's defensive backfield.

Behind enemy lines

SB Nation Minnesota blog Daily Gopher manager GopherNation gives best and worst case scenarios for Minnesota this season:

Best Case Scenario:

If you are allowing me to dream a little I think that best case scenario is the Gophers winning the Big Ten West. Can that happen? This is probably the closest we have had to a legit shot at winning the division since long before there were divisions. In our favor is the fact that we get Nebraska and Wisconsin at home. A year ago the Gophs were playing in Madison on the final weekend of the year for the right to go to Indianapolis. It is entirely possible that this year's matchup holds the same weight but this time they are hosting the Badgers. It is possible. I'm going to assume losses to TCU and Ohio State but in a best case scenario world the Gophers are capable of winning the rest and finishing 10-2 and a date with Ohio State in the Big Ten Title Game. Unfortunately I fear in this scenario we lose in Indy and then are passed over for the Rose Bowl for the runner-up in the East (presumed to be Michigan State). But this, in my mind, is the best case scenario.

Worst Case Scenario:

Last year the Gophers dropped a Big Ten road game that they were favored to win. This ended up not factoring into their final standing or bowl game destination. But there are plenty of road games out there that are no guarantee for Minnesota with trips to Iowa, Northwestern and Purdue. Worst case is that the Gophers lose a couple of these, lose at Ohio State and then lose to Nebraska and/or Wisconsin. If I had to put a number on it I would say that 3-5 in conference, 6-6 overall and a really bad bowl is worst case scenario. It could be worse but that is more doomsday than worst case.

Season Prediction:

Obviously somewhere in the middle is most likely. Much like the last couple years I believe they will win a game or two they shouldn't and lose a game or two they shouldn't as well. I would put 8 wins as the win total again this year. My gut tells me that by the last week of the season we are not in the picture for heading to Indy but we beat Wisconsin at home and get The Axe back for the first time since 2003. But it mostly comes down to the quarterback this year and if Mitch Leidner can improve his passing, even just a little. I think the defense will be very good, the offensive line is going to be very good and special teams is a huge component to what the Gophers do and is very good. This team will be much like last year, my prediction is another 8-win season.

Bill Connelly says...

SB Nation college football guru Bill Connelly has been maniacally churning out previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here's an excerpt from his Minnesota preview:

We saw this with Michigan, and we see it with Minnesota: a volatile schedule with better teams visiting you (in this case, TCU, Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Michigan, all projected higher than the Gophers) and slightly lesser teams hosting you (trips to Iowa, Northwestern, Colorado State, and Purdue await).

That suggests Minnesota will be in close games and introduces a wide array of outcomes from "scraping by at 6-6" to "Big Ten West champs."

If the passing game doesn't completely fall apart without four of its top five targets, and if the defense can avoid fading, getting Nebraska and Wisconsin at home could make the difference in the division. But if special teams gets a little flaky, and last year's run defense was a bit of a mirage, then Minnesota could stumble outside of the top 50.

Years ago, one of the preseason mags would feature a one-page look at teams' likely records broken into likely wins, likely losses, and tossups. I know Minnesota fans are aiming high -- that's what happens when you've improved for three straight years and your biggest division rivals come to your place -- but a glance at the Gophers' schedule gives me something like four to five likely wins, two likely losses, and five to six tossups.

The Gophers might be ready for big things, and hey, keep betting on Kill until he gives you a reason not to. But the margin of error is small.

Final thoughts

While Minnesota's offense will undoubtedly suffer, the Gophers defense should continue to improve in 2015. The matchup in Evanston for both teams' Big Ten-opener could say a lot about the trajectory of both programs in 2015. A win could set either on a path for contention in the weak Big Ten West.

The Game

Date: Oct. 3
Time: TBA
Home/Away: Home
Betting Line: PK