Clemson, Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State, the Gophers.
In a classic game of “which of these is not like the others?” many would likely pick out the latter as not fitting among the perennial College Football Playoff hopefuls.
The Gophers, though, do belong. Along with those four squads and 11 other FBS teams, the Gophers are undefeated after Week 6, improving to 5-0 overall and 2-0 in the Big Ten Conference after dispatching of Illinois 40-17 this past Saturday.
It’s the first time since 2004 the Gophers have started a season with five wins. And that streak could grow.
Despite the Illinois game being the first this season the Gophers didn’t win by a score within one possession, the Gophers’ schedule is favorable. No Ohio State, Michigan or Michigan State are on the slate. The Gophers’ first test against a ranked team likely won’t come until Nov. 9 against No. 10 Penn State, another of those undefeated teams. In between, though, the Gophers host Nebraska (4-2) and play at Rutgers (1-4) before returning home against Maryland (3-2). The Cornhuskers are dangerous, but two of their top players — quarterback Adrian Martinez and wide receiver JD Spielman — left Saturday’s 13-10 win against Northwestern with because of lower-leg injuries.
So, a world where the Gophers are 8-0 isn’t so far-fetched.
Except maybe to the Gophers themselves.
It’s a tried-and-true cliché, but taking it one game at a time is how the Gophers profess they keep winning.
Players and coaches spent a long time in the locker room after the Illinois game, celebrating a dominant win. “Felt amazing, not even going to lie,” is how sophomore safety Antoine Winfield Jr., described the 23-point victory.
But come Sunday morning, that revelatory mood vanished. Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said his players have even told him on those days, “Coach, it feels like we lost when we won.”
That’s not quite how Fleck wants it, though that vibe is good for fixing mistakes. For this week, the focus undoubtedly will be on costly offensive turnovers from sophomore quarterback Tanner Morgan, receiver drops and special teams gaffes. But rather than the team flaunting being 5-0 or despairing at 0-5, Fleck wants his players at the neutral 0-0.
Nothing’s lost. Nothing’s won. But everything’s still possible — even with a grueling November ahead against Penn State, No. 17 Iowa, Northwestern and No. 8 Wisconsin.
Fleck often brings up how the Gophers’ program hasn’t won a national championship since 1960. And he does tout little milestones en route to that far-off goal. Beating Wisconsin for the first time in 14 years last year was one, as was winning the Quick Lane Bowl. He mentioned the 5-0 start along with the Illinois game being the Gophers’ 700th overall victory, the 28th school to do so.
“We have an unbelievable past,” Fleck said. “What we want to do is be that bridge that connects it to now and then connects into the future.”
That’s the grand-scale vision, while the Gophers’ daily concentration remains narrow.
“If there’s one thing that I try to preach it’s … having a game-by-game mind-set,” senior linebacker Thomas Barber said. “Having that 1-0 championship game, it puts it in perspective and really zeros in on that game that we have that week. We put all of our heart and pressure into that game, not worrying about anything else, not worrying about other opponents.”
Basically, the Gophers are playing another iconic game of “don’t jinx it” with fate. And that’s as much to perpetuate their current success as it is an act of self-preservation.
“If you’re thinking about the future, and you lose a game, it’s like, ‘Is the season over?’ And we don’t want to have that mind-set,” Barber said. “… You hear it in the stands if a Big Ten opponent is losing, the fans are going crazy. But I’m telling [the younger players], ‘Hey, lock in on this game right now. Lock in on this game right now. We’ve got to finish it out.’ ”
• On WCCO radio Sunday morning, Fleck said he will redshirt freshman linebacker Donald Willis, who played the first four games. Fellow freshman linebacker James Gordon IV has taken his place on special teams for the next four games, and the redshirt rotation will continue like that.