Kickoff: 7 p.m. tonight at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
TV: Big Ten Network.
Radio: 1520 AM.
Latest line: UB (+24).
2016 records: UB 2-10; Minnesota 9-4.
Last time out: It’s the season opener for both teams. UB lost its last four games to finish the 2016 season including a 27-19 setback in the finale at Bowling Green. Minnesota finished it season with a 17-12 triumph over Washington State in the National Funding Holiday Bowl in San Diego. Coach Tracy Claeys was fired in early January after a clash with university and athletic department officials over the handling of sexual assault allegations that led to the suspension of 10 Gophers players.
Trending: Both head coaches had success in the upper Midwest. It’s the third season as UB head coach for Lance Leipold who built a hugely successful record, at an NCAA Division III coach at Wisconsin-Whitewater. After Claeys was dismissed, Minnesota acted quickly to hire P.J. Fleck, one of the hottest young coaches in the nation who led Western Michigan to a 12-0 regular-season record and a berth in the Cotton Bowl where it lost to Wisconsin, 24-16. Fleck, 36, is the second-youngest Power Five conference coach in the nation. He had a 30-22 overall record at Western Michigan, 21-11 in Mid-American Conference games. The last six Minnesota head coaches have lost their opening game.
Stat check: Under Fleck, Western Michigan averaged 41.57 points per game last season. His first Minnesota team is one of the youngest in the nation with 50 of their 112 players freshmen or redshirt freshmen. Only four players on offense and four on defense have started 10 games or more in their careers. UB scored only 24 touchdowns last season while giving up 49. The Bulls have eight players back who started on defense and six who started on offense.
Star gazing: UB followers are looking for sophomore quarterback Tyree Jackson, all 6-feet-7, 245 pounds of him, to develop after a promising first season in which he ran for 399 yards and five touchdowns and passed for 1,772 yards and nine scores. He also threw nine interceptions. The Bulls are expecting big seasons from center James O’Hagan, guard Brandon Manosalvas, nose tackle Chris Fort, and linebackers Khalil Hodge and Jarrett Franklin. Quarterback is a key for Minnesota, too. There is only one game of starting experience between Conor Rhoda and Demry Croft, who have completed 15 0f 34 passes between them for 122 yards and one touchdown in their careers. Minnesota is led by two dynamic running backs, Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks. Smith has 1,828 career rushing yards, Brooks 1,359. Smith ran for 16 touchdowns last season, third most in Golden Gopher history. Behind them is 240-pound junior college transfer Kobe McCrary. Steven “Stove” Richardson, in the middle of the defensive line, solidifies a unit that allowed only 3.4 yards per rush last season. UB could find sticky going on the ground.
Familiar face: Former Bills linebacker star Bryce Paup is Minnesota’s defensive line coach. He spent the previous four seasons as defensive coach at the University of Northern Iowa, his alma mater.
What’s at stake: A lot of prestige on both sides. The Gophers are 1-0 all-time against UB with the victory coming, 41-17, in 2002 and 30-4-1 all-time against Mid-American Conference teams. UB is 2-11 all time against Big 10 teams. However, one win was over Rutgers before the Scarlet Knights joined the conference. The other was against Penn State in 1900.
Up next: UB will play Army at historic Michie Stadium in West Point on Sept. 9 before opening its home schedule against FCS opponent Colgate on Sept. 16. Minnesota travels to Oregon State on Sept. 9 for its next game.