Yes, we’re 96 days away from opening night, but there’s no reason we can’t be excited already.
In just a little over three months we’ll have the beginning of a college football season. And after the bizarre 2020 season, we are ever hopeful (fingers crossed) that it will be a real season: 12 regular season games (plus the Big Ten championship game and a couple of playoff games), a band and a halftime show, living people filling the stands, lots of noise. For the 2021 Buckeyes, the season opener is on Thursday, Sept. 2, at Minnesota’s in TCF Bank Stadium.
Although we might be more accustomed to opening at home against Akron or Bowling Green, this will actually be the third opening game against a conference foe in the last decade — last Oct. 24 against Nebraska and in 2017 at Indiana. Last year, of course, was unique, but that Indiana game was also on a Thursday night.
Ohio State has fared well against the Gophers over the years, with an impressive 46-7 overall record, and is riding an 11-game winning streak. This year’s contest will be the Buckeyes’ third visit to the outdoor TCF Bank Stadium, having beaten Minnesota 52-10 in 2010 and 31-24 in the national championship year of 2014. That close game was filled with big scoring plays: J.T. Barrett scored on an 86-yard run, Jalin Marshall caught a pass for a 57-yard score, Michael Thomas crossed the Gophers’ goal line on a 30-yard pass play, and Evan Spencer’s 22-yard reception provided the fourth touchdown. Barrett rushed for 189 yards, Ezekiel Elliott racked up another 91, and Joey Bosa owned the line of scrimmage.
What can we expect from the Golden Gophers this year?
It’s hard to say. Despite having most of the key pieces from Minnesota’s outstanding 2019 11-2 team, the 2020 squad disappointed, finishing 3-4 and giving up 30 points per game. For 2021, the very experienced Gophers return 16 starters, but it’s not quite like the old joke: when asked about this season’s prospects, the coach said, “Last year we had nothin,’ and they’re all back.” The defense may still be a big question mark, but key Minnesota offensive players will test the Buckeye defense.
In the abbreviated 2020 season, running back Mohamed Ibrahim was named to the All-Big Ten first-team, rushing for 1,076 yards on 201 carries, for a 5.4 average and 15 touchdowns. The third team All-American is back and will run behind an interior offensive line that returns intact.
Quarterback Morgan Tanner led that great 2019 team and set a number of school passing records while he was at it: 3,253 passing yards, 30 touchdown passes, a 66% completion rate. Last season, however, was another story, as Tanner threw for only 1,374 yards in seven games and put up five interceptions against seven touchdown passes.
Making matters worse, when Tanner returns to the field, his top receiver Rashod Bateman will be gone, and the top two returning WRs caught a total of 34 passes between them in 2020. Perhaps senior wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell can step up for the Gophers. We’ll see how he does against OSU’s secondary. Nevertheless, Tanner is an impressive 18-8 as a starting quarterback, and he should have a very strong running game to support his passing attack.
I think that, come Sept. 2, Minnesota will put up some points on the Ohio State defense. So, one question is: can the Bucks’ great receivers and crushing offensive line provide what a talented, but untested quarterback (whoever he might be!) needs to outscore the Gophers? I think so.
The other obvious question is: can the Bucks avoid looking beyond Minnesota and thinking about the next week with 16th-ranked Oregon? Again — I think so. It’s the first game of the season. And it will be fun to watch. I can hardly wait.