The Golden Gophers are 31st in SP+ projections from ESPN.com and 38th in Pro Football Focus’ preseason projections.
P.J. Fleck’s team had a strong 2019 but slipped last season in the COVID-19 shortened campaign that played havoc with depth charts from week to week.
Veteran quarterback Tanner Morgan and running back Mohamed Ibrahim headline the offense while big things are expected of senior end Boye Mafe on the other side of the ball.
2. Ohio State’s Week 2 opponent might be the best the Buckeyes face in the regular season.
Oregon is No. 5 in the country per SP+ and 13th in PFF’s projections.
The Ducks return 87 percent of their offensive production according to ESPN, but they will have a new quarterback.
The defense should be similarly experienced with 84 percent of its production back.
3. The other two nonconference opponents are a doormat and a team that could be surprisingly tough.
A week after facing Oregon, Ohio State tangles with Tulsa. The Golden Hurricane might not have the name recognition, but there is enough talent there to punish the Buckeyes if they relax too much.
Tulsa had the No. 58 offense in the country last season but ranked 16th on defense per PFF, and the squad is projected No. 58 overall this fall. The SP+ rankings agree as Tulsa is No. 55 in those projections despite an offense that ranks only No. 89 (the defense is 30th).
After that, the Buckeyes play host to Akron. The Zips were one of the worst teams in the country last season, and they project to be one of the worst in the country this season as well.
4. Ohio State’s open week is right in the middle of the season and precedes its toughest two-week stretch of the regular season.
The Buckeyes finish the first half of the season with games against Rutgers (on the road) and Maryland (at home). Then they get a week off before traveling to Indiana.
The Hoosiers are coming off their best season in decades and projected to be No. 24 by PFF and No. 27 in SP+ as quarterback Michael Penix Jr. returns from a season-ending knee injury.
A week later, the Buckeyes will be back home against Penn State, the second-best recruiting team in the Big Ten and the second-best team on the schedule according to SP+. The Nittany Lions are 14th in that metric with the No. 29 offense and sixth-ranked defense. Coach James Franklin’s team is No. 19 in PFF’s projections and looking to put behind it a down season that was derailed early with losses to the Hoosiers and Buckeyes.
5. Michigan is expected to be Ohio State’s fifth-best opponent.
Like the Nittany Lions, the Wolverines are also coming off a disastrous 2020, but they remain a top 25 team in the view of both SP+ (23) and PFF (25).
Jim Harbaugh is still the head coach of his alma mater (with a four-year contract extension signed in January), but he made several changes to the coaching staff.
Quarterback is a question mark for the Wolverines, as it has been for most of Harbaugh’s tenure, but the defense will have a new look under defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald, who was hired away from the Baltimore Ravens staff of brother John Harbaugh.