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Gophers have major questions about passing game ahead of Ohio State

If Chris Autman-Bell doesn't play, who steps up?

How good the Minnesota Gophers are this season is a question that will be partially answered in the season opener Thursday night against the Ohio State Buckeyes. 

The Buckeyes, riding a 22-game conference win streak, enter Huntington Bank Stadium in Minneapolis as prohibitive 14-point favorites over the Gophers, though there is plenty of talk that Minnesota might be getting the Buckeyes at just the right time.

Ohio State is loaded with high-end talent, including starting quarterback C.J. Stroud. But Stroud has never started in college and has yet to attempt a pass in the Big Ten. The former 4-star recruit from California won the starting job after sitting behind Justin Fields (the No. 11 pick to the Bears in the NFL Draft) last season. 

Stroud has incredible talent around him, including arguably the two best receivers in the Big Ten, Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson. That's why it'll be key for the Gophers to control time of possession and keep the Buckeyes' offense off the field. 

With the ball, Ohio State is undoubtedly going to put up explosive plays. But if Minnesota's massive offensive line can help Mohamed Ibrahim dominate on the ground, the Gophers will have a chance. 

The Gophers return five seniors on the offensive line ahead of Ibrahim, who rushed for 1,076 yards and 15 touchdowns in only seven games last season. 

The projected starting line features left tackle Sam Schlueter, left guard Blaise Andries, center John Michael Schmitz, right guard Connor Olson and right tackle Daniel Faalele. It's a massive line weighing an average of more than 330 pounds and all of them are seniors. 

Minnesota's 180 combined starts among offensive linemen is the most in the FBS, so they certainly have the size and experience to control games and time of possession. But doing so against Ohio State will arguably be their most difficult test of the season. 

The Buckeyes' offensive and defensive lines are ranked Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, according to Athlon's preseason rankings. It'll be a war in the trenches, but just as important for the Gophers will the ability to move the ball through the air. 

Quarterback Tanner Morgan saw a massive drop in production in 2020 after a 2019 season had some draft experts raving about him. But long gone are the days that Morgan was throwing the ball to Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman. Now he's throwing the ball to a group of receivers that has proven next to nothing. 

Chris Autman-Bell, the most experienced receiver on the team, has been rehabbing a lower leg injury and his status for Thursday's game is unknown. If he's out it'll be a massive blow to the offense. The depth behind him features redshirt sophomore Daniel Jackson and Texas A&M transfer Dylan Wright. 

Jackson had 12 receptions as a freshman and Wright doesn't have a catch to his name in college. Behind those two are Clay Geary, the Lakeville native with six career catches,  Mike Brown-Stephens, the nephew of John Legend who has four career catches, and a trio of freshmen, Douglas Emilien, Lemeke Brockington and Brady Boyd. 

The Gophers just need receivers to step up, and if they do the offense could be quite good this season. 

Thursday's game kicks off just after 7 p.m. and will be televised on FOX. 

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