Gophers versus Michigan: 5 things to know

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - NOVEMBER 09: Head coach P.J. Fleck of the Minnesota Golden Gophers and his team take the field against the Penn State Nittany Lions at TCFBank Stadium on November 9, 2019 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Adam Bettcher/Getty Images / Getty Images)

The University of Minnesota football team gets the national stage Saturday night, hosting Michigan at TCF Bank Stadium to start an eight-game regular season.

There won’t be any fans in the stands, other than family of players for both teams. ESPN’s College GameDay is in town, and it’s the fifth time in the history of the show that they’ve visited a team for consecutive home games. The crew was in Minneapolis last year for the regular season finale against Wisconsin, with the Big Ten West title on the line.

The Gophers are coming off an 11-2 season, their best since 1904, after beating Auburn in the Outback Bowl. Here’s five things to know about Saturday’s game.

The Little Brown Jug

Minnesota and Michigan meet for the 104th time on Saturday, and the 97th time that the Little Brown Jug is on the line. The Wolverines lead the all-time series 75-25-3, and the Little Brown Jug got its start in Red Wing. It was left in Michigan after a 6-6 tie in 1903, which snapped a 28-game win streak for the Wolverines. It’s one of the oldest rivalries in college football. P.J. Fleck has faced Michigan once, a 33-10 loss in Ann Arbor in 2017, his first season.

The Gophers last beat Michigan in 2014, under Jerry Kill. The team was welcomed home to a huge crowd at its facility, and the Little Brown Jug was paraded across the state.

“This here is our next game, and the next game is always the biggest game. It’s a very big game for us, and a very big game for everybody in the program. We’re ready to play,” rush end Boye Mafe said.

What about Michigan?

The Wolverines enter Saturday’s game three-point favorites, but face plenty of questions. They’re led on offense by quarterback Joe Milton, who has eight career completions and two touchdowns in two seasons. Michigan lost four All-Big Ten starters on the offensive line, and its top two receivers from last season.

The Wolverines have to replace all three starting linebackers, and three defensive backs from last season. But as P.J. Fleck noted this week, Michigan features 44 four-star and two 5-star players. In six seasons as the Michigan coach, Jim Harbaugh has a 47-18 record.

First battle of ranked teams in 52 years

For the first time since 1968, Minnesota will play in a season-opener where both teams are ranked in the top 25. The Gophers finished last season ranked No. 10 in the final Associated Press poll, and they enter Saturday’s game ranked No. 21. The Wolverines come to Minneapolis ranked No. 18. The Gophers have won their last two home games against teams ranked higher than them. Minnesota is also 13-2 in its last 15 games, with those losses coming to Wisconsin and at Iowa.

Mohamed Ibrahim leads the Gophers run game

Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith, Minnesota’s all-time leader in total yardage, are gone. Redshirt junior Mohamed Ibrahim returns to lead the Gophers’ run game. He had 604 rushing yards and seven touchdowns last year, averaging 5.4 yards per carry in 11 games. In 2018, he led Minnesota with 1,160 yards and nine touchdowns. After Ibrahim, running backs with returning experience include Bryce Williams and Cam Wiley. Williams ran for 502 yards and four touchdowns as a freshman, including eight carries for 50 yards and two scores at Wisconsin. After Wiley and Williams, the names to watch are Trey Potts, Jason Williamson, Preston Jelen and freshman Ky Thomas.

New faces on defense

Minnesota won’t necessarily be young on defense, but it will lack game experience. The Gophers lost seven starters from last year, but they do have returning players at every level of the defense. They return Boye Mafe, Micah Dew-Treadway and Esezi Otomewo and Keonte Schad. The linebackers with experience will include Mariano Sori-Marin and Thomas Rush, and the experience in the secondary includes Benjamin St.-Juste, Jordan Howden, Coney Durr, Tyler Nubin, Benny Sapp and Terell Smith.

So what will the Gophers look like Saturday night? We won’t know until they take the field for pre-game warm-ups. That’s when we’ll find out who is healthy, who isn’t and who might have opted out of the season due to COVID-19. Buckle up, football is back.