Nine games in a college football season usually offers enough evidence to know what a team is, or isn’t. The Gophers still have an element of mystery to their résumé.

At 7-2, they are a team with definite strengths and identity. That’s a reasonable conclusion based on their body of work. But how good are they overall? TBD.

That answer will be quantified over the next three weeks.

The Gophers finally have reached a closing stretch that has been flashing brightly since they reported to fall camp — at Nebraska, Northwestern, at Wisconsin.

Four consecutive victories against bottom-rung Big Ten teams have left them tied atop the Big Ten West standings. It hasn’t always been smooth or even encouraging, but they have given themselves a chance to contend with three games remaining.

This was their objective all along. Take advantage of a manageable schedule. Play meaningful games in November. Be in the mix.

So here it is, a stretch that will define their season and possibly dictate the program’s direction henceforth.

Fair or not, their soft schedule has created a counterbalance to their record, a “yeah, but …” attachment when evaluating the team. Squeezing by Rutgers on a last-second field goal at home counts as any other win but does not remove skepticism. That probably frustrates the Gophers internally, but optics fuel perception.

Attendance at TCF Bank Stadium has been poor all season, not just for nonconference games. The stadium looked half-empty by the conclusion of the Purdue victory, a game that was close in the fourth quarter, played under ideal weather with a 2:30 p.m. kickoff and improved the Gophers record to 7-2.

As a lifelong lover of college football, I found those sections of empty seats disheartening.

From a national perspective, the Gophers received only two votes in this week’s Associated Press poll. Troy and Tulsa earned more votes.

The Gophers hold in their hand an opportunity to alter perception, which is why it’s impossible to overstate the importance of the final three games for the program and possibly Tracy Claeys’ future as coach.

Claeys’ job status has become a weekly discussion on social media and fan message boards. Claeys has two years remaining on his contract, a minuscule buyout by industry standards and a new boss in Mark Coyle.

The school invited intense public speculation by giving Claeys what essentially is a prove-it contract after Jerry Kill’s sudden retirement. The contract parameters were smart because they protect the university by not saddling a new athletic director with a football coach he inherited.

That’s a tough spot for Claeys, though, having his job status debated after every game. From a personal standpoint, he has handled that delicate situation quite well.

Speculation is a product of the circumstance but also pointless without knowing what happens the final three games. Or knowing Coyle’s private thoughts. Everything is pure guesswork at this point.

The grass-is-always-greener crowd romanticizes coaching changes as if they are swapping fantasy football players. Reality doesn’t work that way. There’s value in showing patience, too.

Asked about his future on his coach’s show on KFAN this week, Claeys said he hopes to work out a contract extension with Coyle after the season.

“I think we’ve proven that we can get things done here at the University of Minnesota,” he said.

Claeys will have two seasons remaining. To do nothing would not be ideal. Perception is important, particularly as it relates to recruiting.

No, the program wouldn’t be boarded up if Claeys continued as is, with only two seasons on his contract. But Coyle presumably has evaluated the program intensely this season to determine his next move.

The picture isn’t complete yet.

The Gophers have won seven games behind a robust rushing attack featuring Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks and a defense that ranks among the best in college football at creating turnovers.

But strength of schedule is impossible to ignore. Their first nine opponents have a combined record of 36-46. Only one — Penn State — has won more than five games.

Their final three opponents combined are 18-9.

The Gophers can’t control the quality of their Big Ten schedule. They can only maximize what’s been put before them.

They are in position to contend for the division title, three games that will define their season. They can remove any doubt about how they should be viewed.

Chip Scoggins chip.scoggins@startribune.com