By PHIL MILLER
I'm roughly halfway to Las Vegas as I write this, and there are roughly a dozen passengers on this flight wearing Gophers gear, including a couple of familiar faces from the sidelines at practice.
(Brief aside: The effects of the drought gripping the Midwest and Rocky Mountains are plainly evident when you fly over the country; every lake has a ring around it where the water used to be.)
Later flights today and tomorrow will undoubtedly have a lot more. For Minnesota football fans looking to build a vacation around a Gophers football game, probably no game in several years has been more anticipated than this one. No offense to West Lafayette or East Lansing, but there are a few more things to do in Las Vegas when the game is over.
That's why it's hardly a surprise that the university sold out its allotment of 3,000 tickets, Jason LaFrenz, the university's assistant athletics director for marketing and ticket sales, said last week. There will be a relatively large contingent of Gopher fans in Sam Boyd Stadium tomorrow night. I'll be watching for maroon-and-gold in the casinos the next two days.
"I know that we've got a huge following going out. I've got all kinds of emails and phone calls and good luck (messages)," coach Jerry Kill said Tuesday. "We had a huge following when we went out to USC. There's not a question about how passionate our fans are -- we've just got to make sure we put a good product out there."
Fans who traveled to Los Angeles and Las Vegas these past two years don't have much to get excited about for the foreseeable future. And truthfully, considering the downtrodden history of UNLV football, even this game wouldn't be a particularly big draw if the Rebels didn't play in Las Vegas. (There is added intrigue to the game, given that it's the opener, but that's changing, too; the Gophers will open at home for at least the next four years.)
Next year, the Gophers will visit Chapel Hill, N.C., for the last non-conference road matchup with a BCS-level opponent for awhile.
Kill, who explored canceling the contract with the Tar Heels earlier this year, has made it clear that the Big Ten schedule is difficult enough without adding extra hurdles during September, so the Gophers have joined the rest of major college football by sticking to home games against lesser conferences. It's nothing unique to Minnesota, far from it; but as a college football fan, it's a shame that the practice of playing your peers around the country is dying out.
The trend means no road games at all for the Gophers in September 2014, and trips to Colorado State in 2015 and Miami of Ohio in 2016. Admittedly, Fort Collins, Colo., is beautiful and I always enjoyed covering games there, but it's not like playing USC, is it?
Kill joked last week that he'd prefer to play 12 home games, and he's practically getting his wish this year. Once the Gophers arrive home from Las Vegas early Friday morning, they won't leave the Central time zone again this season. It's the first time since 1961 that they have no games on the schedule in the Eastern time zone.
Of course, that season ended with a game two time zones away -- in Pasadena on New Year's Day. I'm guessing that's a road trip that Kill would approve of.