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Gopher Football Opener: 4 Things To Watch

Football season is here. Let that feeling sink in as the University of Minnesota gets ready for its first real test in the P.J. Fleck era.

The Gophers open the 2017 regular season Thursday night against Buffalo. They are favored to beat the Bulls by more than three touchdowns. But point spreads and expectations don't really matter when you get on the football field and kick off.

It's really about 11 guys on the field at once, each winning their individual battle on every play. That said, many Gophers fans haven't seen what this team will look like under Fleck, unless they've been to a scrimmage or an open practice. We know Fleck runs practices and scrimmages at a hectic pace, largely to be ready for any situation on game day.

So what can fans expect Thursday night? Here are four things to watch against Buffalo.

Conor Rhoda
(credit: CBS)

Who Plays Quarterback?

What we do know is that both fifth-year senior Conor Rhoda and redshirt sophomore Demry Croft will play. What we don't know is who will take the first snaps, and who will emerge between the two and take over the offense. Both have played in games, though sparingly. Rhoda got action in three games last year, including one start at Maryland. It was a convincing 31-10 victory where the Gophers relied heavily on their run game and scored off a turnover.

Croft played in three games as a freshman two seasons ago after Mitch Leidner went down with an injury. He threw just 17 passes in three games.

Fleck said at the end of fall camp that both will play this year and both deserve a chance to win the job. Rhoda has been around longer and is arguably the better leader, and Croft is the better athlete and might be the more accurate passer. We'll find out Thursday night if one of them takes a clear step to take over the job.

National Funding Holiday Bowl - Minnesota v Washington State
(credit: Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

What Will The Offense Look Like?

Fans who watched Western Michigan face Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl got an early preview of what the Gophers could look like this season on offense. Fleck's offense was primarily with the quarterback in the shotgun, which is common throughout college football. It featured a lot of quick passes to athletes in space, letting them utilize their speed. But make no mistake about it, this offense will center around how the offensive line plays, and with that, how the run game functions with standouts Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith.

Both are capable of rushing for more than 1,000 yards, which we haven't seen happen since the Laurence Maroney and Marion Barber III days. Fleck's offenses have averaged more than 30 points per game the last three seasons, something that would give Gophers fans excitement. There have been plenty of games the Gophers should have won, but didn't because of average quarterback play and not being able to get in the end zone.

Northwestern v Minnesota
(credit: Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

What Can We Expect From The Defense?

The Gophers' defense won them the Holiday Bowl against Washington State, and they did it with exotic schemes and blitzes that kept Washington State guessing. While the coaching staff is different, many of the players are back. The defensive line is stacked with Steven Richardson, Andrew Stelter, Merrick Jackson, Winston DeLattiboudere, Tai'yon Devers and Gary Moore. The biggest issue there is they lack depth if there is an injury.

Minnesota is also loaded at linebacker with Carter Coughlin, who will actually play more like a defensive lineman at rush end. The Gophers also have Blake Cashman, Kamal Martin, Jonathan Celestin, Cody Poock, Julian Huff and Thomas Barber among guys who played a lot last season at linebacker. They're young in the secondary and lack depth, but have a solid front line of players that includes Duke McGhee, Antoine Winfield Jr., Jacob Huff, Antonio Shenault and Zo Craighton. They'll face challenges if they suffer injuries. But the whole defensive group will be aggressive and should be in position to make big plays in key spots.

Come Out Healthy, With A Victory

The Gophers are currently 25-point favorites against Buffalo Thursday night, and when the predicted margin is that wide, you hope to come out with a victory and with full health. But we all know it's the Gophers, and nothing ever comes easy for Minnesota sports. Not even the first non-conference game against a MAC opponent that finished 2-10 last season. In a perfect world, the Gophers beat Buffalo 41-10 and everyone comes away healthy. But it likely won't be that simple, because it never is. Fleck hopes to "Fill the Bank," which will be tough to do Thursday with the Vikings, Twins and St. Paul Saints having home games, and the State Fair. But if he wins, fans will come.

So it's game week for the Gophers, their first with Fleck. We've heard all the phrases – Row the Boat, Elite, Change Your Best, HYPRR. We know he's about keeping the tradition, but changing the culture. Now it's time to see how the philosophies and the culture, connecting teammates and fans, translates on the football field. Win and everything else takes care of itself. Lose, and he's just another coach spitting catch phrases and hyperbole. He's a proven winner, now it's time to see if he can do it with the Gophers at the Power 5 level.

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