Is Minnesota legit? That's the question most want to know as the 7-2 Golden Gophers get set to host Penn State at TCF Bank Stadium this Saturday. Jerry Kill and Bill O'Brien are two of the best coaches in the Big Ten, especially when it comes to getting the most out of a team without a decided advantage on paper, so seeing the two go head-to-head for the first time will be a treat.
Rankings and records: Penn State holds an 8-4 series advantage over Minnesota, including victories in the last four meetings. Minnesota is receiving a handful of votes here and there in polling, but neither team is ranked or even much of a candidate after this week.
Vegas: Minnesota has emerged as a two-point favorite, according to Odds Shark.
Weather: Cloudy, a chance of showers and temperatures in the lower 40s. Bring layers.
Three names to know
Minnesota's head coach is Jerry Kill, but as he remains in treatment for epilepsy, defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys continues to call the shots on the sidelines — and he's doing a tremendous job leading the program. Minnesota has won three straight games under Claeys, the defense looks well-drilled and the Gophers just aren't making the mistakes that bad teams make. If Claeys isn't on a short list of Broyles Award candidates, something is terribly wrong.
The Gophers have employed the use of two quarterbacks in varying doses this year, but it looks like they've settled on sophomore Philip Nelson as the primary signal-caller going forward. Nelson is as adept a runner as he is a passer, and he's maturing on the field week by week.
Speaking of quarterbacks learning on the fly, true freshman Christian Hackenberg has been remarkably productive for Penn State after being thrown into the role from Week 1 by O'Brien. Hackenberg's arm is one of the best in the conference already, and once he gets a rapport established with his receivers, he'll be deadly.
Two things at stake
Penn State can hit six wins (and thus theoretical bowl eligibility) with a victory here, and a winning record would be just a Purdue home game away — which is to say, a virtual certainty. That would be two straight winning seasons under massive NCAA sanctions for O'Brien, which is two more than many thought Penn State would be able to achieve when the sanctions hit. That means a lot for the rebuilding program.
As for the Gophers, it would be another legitimate win and a move to 8-2 on the year, which Minnesota hasn't achieved since 2003 (and those first eight wins came against a preposterously easy schedule). At that point the Gophers can realistically start thinking about the upper half of the Big Ten's bowl schedule, and an outside shot at the Outback Bowl is still within reach.
How to witness
TV: These two teams kick off at noon ET (11 a.m. Central, local for Minnesota) on ESPN2. Beth Mowins, Joey Galloway and Paul Carcaterra are on the call.
Online streaming: As with all ESPN family games, this will be streamed on ESPN3. XFINITY subscribers can watch the game here.
More from SB Nation college football:
• Watch Easy Call’s Week 11 picks and nuggets: