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Stakes High for Gopher Bowl Game

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December 31, 2019

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Seldom has a University of Minnesota football team been booked into such a meaningful postseason game as Wednesday’s Outback Bowl in Tampa against Auburn.

The Golden Gophers have participated in 20 previous bowls but only three have been in January when the more prestigious and historic games are usually staged. Minnesota split consecutive Rose Bowls in 1961 and 1962, and hasn’t been back to the “Granddaddy of them all” since. It took the Gophers until 2015 to earn their way back to a January bowl game, losing 33-17 to Missouri from the mighty Southeastern Conference in the Citrus Bowl in Orlando.

On Wednesday the Gophers face a storied SEC program and strong team in the Auburn Tigers, winners of nine games including a 48-45 victory over preseason national championship contender Alabama (believed to be God’s favorite program). The Tigers, 9-3, are about a touchdown favorite to win the Outback Bowl against the 10-2 Gophers. Auburn is No. 12 in the College Football Playoff rankings, Minnesota No. 18.

Truth is thousands of Minnesotans will sign up right now for a seven point loss to the Tigers who a year ago dismantled the Big Ten’s Purdue Boilermakers in the Music City Bowl, 63-14. Whether Minnesota fans are sunbathing today on the beaches of Southwest Florida, or shivering in ice houses in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, Gopher Nation prays its team won’t be embarrassed by the Tigers Wednesday.

If Minnesota can win the game, or at least keep it close, that will have a mega effect on the public’s perception of this year’s team and successor. Here’s why:

After the 2018 Quick Lane Bowl victory in Detroit, Minnesota had earned a 7-6 overall record. In Big Ten games Minnesota was 3-6. Coach P.J. Fleck’s team won three of its last games, including the bowl win over Georgia Tech. Fair-minded fans thought his third season in 2019 held promise, but no one saw 10-2 coming, 7-2 in the Big Ten and a national ranking as high as No. 8.

A program and fan-base mired in skepticism and negativity for decades all of a sudden had reason to celebrate. Minnesota football became a local, regional and national success story. The long-suffering program flirted with achieving enough success to have fans daydreaming about a first Big Ten title since 1967 and a return to Pasadena for the first time in more than 55 years.

Yet a chorus of doubters, even critics, nagged at this team all fall and is ready to rise up in unison if things turn ugly Wednesday. Their argument is the Gophers had a fluky season with a team that experienced more than its share of good fortune. Yes, Minnesota won two nonconference games against mediocre opponents by a total of six points. The Gophers also won two conference games by five points each.

The schedule was favorable, with Minnesota able to avoid some of the Big Ten’s better teams, starting with conference champion Ohio State. In a mediocre West Division, the Gophers lost games against the two best teams, Iowa and Wisconsin. But the pride of Dinkytown defeated then No. 5 ranked Penn State at home in a game that still prompts adrenaline highs in the fan-base, and Minnesota had commanding wins against five of its Big Ten opponents.

If the Gophers win Wednesday, or at least make the Outback Bowl a competitive game, that won’t shut up all the doubters and critics. Some will suggest Auburn came down with a bad case of bowl game indifference, or the Tigers just aren’t that good. Sorry, won’t buy that.

An Outback Bowl win will give the Gophers credibility with the ticket buying public. A convincing win should bump the season ticket base up by several thousand from the low 20,000’s. A loss will damper sales and anticipation for next season, with a so-so home schedule that includes BYU, Iowa and Michigan.

Defeating the Tigers, or having them in retreat late in the game, will add to the confidence Fleck and his assistants have instilled in this team. Make no mistake that these players believed they could have a special season, and they did, showing resolve in close games and overcoming adversity. Beating Auburn, a program from arguably college football’s best conference, will only add to the Gophers’ psyche during the 2020 offseason and into the schedule.

The Minnesota brand adds even more luster with high school recruits if the Gophers show well in the Outback Bowl. Fleck has had three recruiting classes so far at Minnesota but none has cracked the national top 25 year. Beating Auburn would be a bullet point in CAP letters for future Minnesota recruiting by the coaching staff.

P.J. Fleck

Fleck has multiple incentives for the bowl game including coaching smart after the seven-year contraction extension he was given in November. That came as a reward for achievements the program hadn’t experienced in decades and also having the nation’s third longest winning streak. The 39-year-old coach, who has talked about winning Big Ten and national titles at Minnesota since day one, has won 13 of his last 16 games, and has been justifying the confidence of athletic director Mark Coyle who hired him.

The program was stung last week by the news offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca has left the program to become OC at Penn State. A longtime Fleck loyalist, Ciarrocca is one of the nation’s best at what he does. His resume just this year includes developing Tanner Morgan, unwanted by other Big Ten schools while in high school, into one of the conference’s best quarterbacks. Ciarrocca oversaw an offense that finished fourth among league teams in yards per game, 426.8. Minnesota also averaged an impressive 34.3 points per game.

With Ciarrocca’s recent departure, Fleck reportedly will have his hand in the offense more on Wednesday than in the past. He could show that the Gophers won’t slow down without Ciarrocca whose versatile offense helped rebuild Minnesota football and before that contributed to a 13-1 Fleck team at Western Michigan.

The bowl game looks like a possible audition for wide receivers coach Matt Simon, the Farmington, Minnesota native who has long been a Fleck favorite. Simon is expected to play a role, likely a major one, in play calling. While Fleck may eventually replace Ciarrocca with an outside hire, speculation is that Simon and tight ends coach Clay Patterson are internal candidates.

The Outback Bowl will be the last game for a core of seniors who contributed to the program’s revival. The Gophers honored 13 seniors before their last regular season home game against Wisconsin. The loss to the Badgers wasn’t a pleasant departing memory for seniors like Thomas Barber, Shannon Brooks, Carter Coughlin, Tyler Johnson, Sam Renner and Rodney Smith. However, they could bask in a lot of glory in the Florida sunshine on Wednesday, and are yet another reason why the Gophers are playing for so much this week at the Outback Bowl.

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David Shama

David Shama is a former sports editor and columnist with local publications. His writing and reporting experiences include covering the Minnesota Vikings, Minnesota Twins, Minnesota Timberwolves and Minnesota Gophers. Shama’s career experiences also include sports marketing. He is the former Marketing Director of the Minnesota North Stars of the NHL. He is also the former Marketing Director of the United States Tennis Association’s Northern Section. A native of Minneapolis, Shama has been part of the community his entire life. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota where he majored in journalism. He also has a Master’s degree in education from the University of St. Thomas. He was a member of the Governor’s NBA’s Task Force to help create interest in bringing pro basketball to town in the 1980s.

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