When college football’s national championship game concludes and the confetti pops Monday night, the countdown clock will start ticking toward the 2021 season.
The Gophers, for one, will be looking to show their 3-4 record in 2020 was an aberration in the otherwise upward trajectory of head coach P.J. Fleck’s tenure across his four seasons in Dinkytown.
Minnesota’s schedule next fall looks daunting, especially with the title game finalist Ohio State coming to Minneapolis for the season opener at TCF Bank Stadium. Fellow Big Ten West Division opponents Purdue and Nebraska also have to face the Buckeyes — just not out of the gate.
The Gophers also will face their first Power Five nonconference opponent since 2017 (Oregon State), but their game at Colorado isn’t the only challenge the Big Ten West has on the dockets.
Wisconsin and Purdue each face playoff semifinalist Notre Dame, while Nebraska has a date with former Big Eight rival Oklahoma ,and Iowa reconvenes its rivalry with Iowa State, the Big XII runner-up to the Sooners in 2020.
Here’s a look at each 2021 game for Minnesota:
Sept. 2 — Ohio State
The Buckeyes won’t have a first-round draft pick like Justin Fields at quarterback in 2021, but they might replace him with five-star true freshman Kyle McCord. The Big Ten’s best program will keep its throne, and Minnesota has one of the toughest opening games in the country.
Sept. 11 — Miami (Ohio)
Fleck is 23-11 against the Mid-American Conference teams in his head-coaching career. The Redhawks are a bit of an enigma after they went 2-1 in the fall, with three other games canceled.
Sept. 18 — at Colorado
Minnesota’s nation-leading 19 consecutive nonconference victories likely will become 20 after a Week 2 victory, but that mark could fall against a Pac-12 member that went 4-1 in the 2020 regular season.
Sept. 25 — Bowling Green
This is the biggest cupcake on the Gophers’ schedule. The Falcons were 0-5 and had one of the worst scoring offenses in the country, averaging 11.4 points per game in 2020.
Oct. 2 — at Purdue
The Gophers have won three straight against the Boilermakers — thanks, in part, to a questionable interference call that bailed them out last November. And Purdue will have its third defensive coordinator in three years in the fall. This helps with the U’s record against its rivals.
Oct. 9 — Wisconsin
Fleck’s bad record versus the Badgers and Hawkeyes will start to stick to him more and more — until he does something about it. It now stands at 1-7. He beat Wisconsin in 2018, but he’s lost to them twice since then, including in overtime in Madison for a bitter taste to end 2020.
Oct. 16 — Bye
The off week comes smack dab in the middle of the season.
Oct. 23 — at Northwestern
Is another dip coming? The Wildcats won West Division titles in 2018 and 2020 but finished last in ’19. A bad sign could be quarterback Peyton Ramsey, who ended his collegiate career last week, and the rostered replacements had a hand in the 3-9 mark in ’19.
Oct. 30 — Maryland
The Gophers play the Terrapins for a sixth straight season and will need a win to salvage a 3-3 record in those games. Minnesota’s defense made Taulia Tagovailoa look like his older brother, former Alabama star Tua, in their overtime loss last year.
Nov. 6 — Illinois
New head coach Bret Bielema takes over for Lovie Smith. What will the Illini be under him? Can he turn it into the .739 winning percentage he had in seven seasons at Wisconsin or will it be more like the .460 mark he produced in five years at Arkansas?
Nov. 13 — at Iowa
The Floyd of Rosedale rivalry added tablespoons of Cayenne spice when Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz called three timeouts to stick it to Fleck as he tried to end the shoutout late in the fourth quarter of the Hawkeyes’ blowout win last November. Fleck will look to avoid 0-5 versus Iowa at Kinnick Stadium.
Nov. 20 — at Indiana
The Hoosiers were the clear second-best team in the Big Ten in 2020, with Tom Allen the unanimous Big Ten coach of the year. Indiana is on the rise, and the Gophers have to go on the road for a second consecutive week.
Nov. 26 — vs. Nebraska
The Gophers replace the Hawkeyes as Nebraska’s regular opponent on Black Friday. The Cornhuskers can’t seem to get any momentum; they lost their best offensive player, dynamic Wan’Dale Robinson, to the transfer portal on Monday.