This might be Tracy Claeys’ most important test yet.

The Gophers no longer control their destiny in the Big Ten West race, not after Saturday’s 24-17 loss at No. 19 Nebraska. And they’re two weeks from the rivalry game that matters most, at No. 6 Wisconsin.

But first comes Northwestern, a 5-5 team that is anything but mediocre. It’s a trap game, if there ever was one. And with Claeys’ long-term contract status still uncertain, this would be a bad time to slip into a trap.

“This one will be about the seniors,” Claeys said Sunday. “They’ve done well, and so we all need to make sure that we’re prepared and give them a chance to win their last game here at TCF Bank [Stadium].”

A win for the seniors would be a nice sidebar to the bigger story, which would be the Gophers getting their eighth win. That’s as many as they had during Jerry Kill’s two best seasons (2013 and 2014). And they’d be in position to reach nine victories for the first time since they finished 10-3 under Glen Mason in 2003.

Athletic director Mark Coyle is playing things close to the vest, but it’s hard to imagine Minnesota firing a coach after an 8-4 regular season.

It’s almost decision time. Claeys has two more years remaining on his three-year, $4.5 million contract, which includes a relatively small buyout, at $250,000 per season.

Last week, Claeys told KFAN (100.3-FM) that he’d like to work out a contract extension after the season, knowing the impact a coach’s uncertain status can have on recruiting.

The Gophers were riding a four-game winning streak at the time, albeit one against teams with a current combined Big Ten record of 5-23. One more win would quiet the soft-schedule talk, and the frustrating thing for fans is this team has let three big ones slip.

The losses to Nebraska, No. 9 Penn State (29-26 in overtime) and Iowa (14-7) all involved blown second-half leads. Late Saturday night, Nebraska coach Mike Riley reiterated what he’d been saying all week.

“I think Minnesota is a tough-minded team that has gotten better and better all year long,” he said.

Asked if he agreed, Claeys said: “You take anybody who’s played their first 10 games and all of [the losses] have come down to one possession — I don’t think there’s any question we’ve gotten better. We’re disappointed with the loss, no different than anybody else is, but at least we’re competing and giving ourselves a chance.”

The Gophers couldn’t say that in 2013, when they lost convincingly to Iowa, Michigan and Wisconsin. They couldn’t say it in 2014, with their noncompetitive losses to TCU and Missouri. Or last year, when Nebraska waxed them by 23, and Northwestern beat them 27-donut.

Pat Fitzgerald’s Wildcats looked like a Big Ten laughingstock when they opened this season with losses to Western Michigan and Illinois State. Since then, they have engineered road victories at Iowa, Michigan State and Purdue.

The Wildcats have three offensive players who’ve emerged among the Big Ten’s best at their respective positions in quarterback Clayton Thorson, running back Justin Jackson and wide receiver Austin Carr.

So an eighth victory would be hard-earned for the Gophers. Claeys will need to have them ready.

“This is the first year that we’ve been as consistent as we’ve been,” Claeys said. “We’ve got to finish a couple of those [close games] off, but it’s not because we’re not competing hard.

“So would I like to be 10-0? Sure. So would our kids. But we’ve battled hard, and we just keep playing. We’ll get what we want eventually.”

 

Joe Christensen covers college football for the Star Tribune. E-mail: jchristensen@startribune.com