The Gophers football team won’t know its next bowl destination until Sunday, but heading into the weekend, the program had it narrowed down to two states — Florida or California.
After losing two consecutive bowl games in Houston, either coast sounded like a refreshing change for the Gophers. Still, it remains to be seen how popular their bowl assignment will be with their long-suffering fanbase.
With Ohio State’s rout in Saturday night’s Big Ten Championship Game over Wisconsin, it appeared the Gophers likely would end up in either the TaxSlayer Bowl (the former Gator Bowl, Jan. 2 in Jacksonville, Fla., vs. an SEC team) or Foster Farms Bowl (Dec. 30 in Santa Clara, Calif., vs. a Pac-12 team).
The Gophers haven’t played a New Year’s Day bowl game since defeating UCLA in the 1962 Rose Bowl. They went 8-4 this season, including 5-3 in the Big Ten, and hoped that would be enough to land a berth in the Citrus Bowl (Jan. 1 in Orlando) or Outback Bowl (Jan. 1 in Tampa, Fla.).
But heading into the weekend, those hopes were no longer high. Michigan State appeared headed to the Orange Bowl, and under the bylaws, if the Orange Bowl gets a Big Ten team, the Citrus Bowl does not.
That leaves the Outback Bowl, and Nebraska appears to be the more likely choice for that one, even though the Gophers beat the Cornhuskers on Nov. 22. Nebraska used a softer nonconference schedule to finish 9-3 overall.
Nebraska fired coach Bo Pelini and hired Oregon State coach Mike Riley to replace him last week. Riley said he won’t coach Nebraska’s bowl game, but his arrival in Lincoln helps reinvigorate a fanbase that traditionally travels well to bowls.
The Big Ten has more influence over the selections this year, but the conference explained the limits of its reach this week in a memo to athletic directors. According to ESPN, Associate Commissioner Mark Rudner wrote:
“Unless a contract bowl selects a team that is overexposed because of recent trips to the same bowl or same region, we will not interfere with the bowl’s selection. … Our bowls have the choice, other than the repeat criteria, to select the team that fits their bowl need on an annual basis. In other words, the number of wins, number of losses, head to head, and schedule strength are advisory only.”
The Gophers knew their bowl fate would hinge largely on what happened between Ohio State and Wisconsin.
Had Wisconsin won, the Gophers most likely would have headed to the Holiday Bowl (Dec. 27 in San Diego) to play a Pac-12 team. That scenario assumed Michigan State went to the Orange Bowl, with Wisconsin and Ohio State heading to the Peach, Fiesta or Cotton, and Nebraska in the Outback Bowl.
But the Badgers’ loss means they appear set for the Holiday instead.
Regardless of destination and opponent, the Gophers will be trying to snap a six-game bowl losing streak that stretches to their 2004 Music City Bowl victory over Alabama.
“We’re a hungry, hungry team,” Gophers quarterback Mitch Leidner said. “Looking back on our bowl game last year and what happened there [in the 21-17 loss to Syracuse], we don’t want that to happen again.”