EAST LANSING, MICH. – Rick Catlett has been the Gator Bowl’s executive director for 21 years, and he views the Gophers as an intriguing possibility for that New Year’s Day game in Jacksonville, Fla.
“I think any time a team does as well as they have, it certainly gets people’s attention,” Catlett said. “We started paying closer attention to them at midseason.”
At 8-3, the Gophers are having their best season since they finished 10-3 in 2003. They know they are heading to a bowl, but it’s still hard to pinpoint where. They have one more chance to make an impression on Catlett and other bowl officials Saturday, when they play at No. 11 Michigan State.
“The bowl thing — nobody can predict that,” Gophers coach Jerry Kill said. “But that’s not what’s important to us right now. Our focus is on Michigan State.”
The bowls don’t have to pick teams based on won-loss records, but an upset Saturday would improve Minnesota’s résumé. To put it differently, it could save the Gophers from falling to the bottom of the Big Ten’s bowl pecking order.
Historically, Gophers fans have not traveled as well to bowls as have fans of the other Big Ten teams jostling with them for position this weekend, including Iowa, Nebraska and Michigan.
Iowa’s win over Nebraska on Friday left both teams at 8-4, and even if Michigan falls to 7-5 with a loss to Ohio State on Saturday, the Wolverines could get picked ahead of the Gophers.
The bowl matchups will be set Dec. 8, and here’s how it works:
• First the BCS bowl pairings are set, and the big question here is how many of those 10 slots the Big Ten will fill. Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin are all in the running, and many of the latest projections have two Big Ten teams making it.
• The Capital One Bowl picks next, followed by the Outback Bowl, Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, Gator Bowl, Texas Bowl and Heart of Dallas Bowl.
Many of the national projections have the Gophers landing in the Texas Bowl. That’s the same Houston bowl that the Gophers played in last year, when it was called the Meineke Car Care Bowl.
If the Big Ten fails to land a second team in a BCS bowl — beyond its Rose Bowl representative — the Gophers could end up in the Heart of Dallas Bowl.
That’s a New Year’s Day game, and the Gophers haven’t played a Jan. 1 bowl game since they defeated UCLA 21-3 in the 1962 Rose Bowl. But the Heart of Dallas Bowl tends to get lost in the shuffle for most football fans. It’s played at 11 a.m., on ESPNU, against a team from Conference USA.
Last year, the Gophers athletics department lobbied hard to get to Houston, and wound up being picked over a 6-6 Purdue team, which ended up in Dallas.
The Gophers sold an announced 3,163 tickets through the university, far short of their 12,000-seat allotment but more than they’d sold in three previous bowl trips, all to the Insight Bowl in Tempe, Ariz.
“I think we’ve got a long way to go to develop a profile where bowls are going to be confident that our fans are going to show up in numbers that they would be excited about,” Gophers deputy athletics director David Benedict said. “In all honesty, it’s because we haven’t been successful enough [in recent years] to where we’ve really had the chance to develop that profile.”
Benedict believes that’s changing. He said it’s a testament to the work Kill has done improving the program and selling the program around the state.
“I think there’s a lot of excitement and anticipation for a bowl this year,” Benedict said. “And I believe a lot of people that haven’t typically gone in recent years are planning on going.”
The Gator Bowl is played at 77,500-seat EverBank Field, home of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Last year’s matchup pitted a 9-3 Northwestern team against an 8-4 Mississippi State squad, and the announced attendance was 48,612.
One year earlier, because of the way the SEC race shook out, the Gator Bowl was forced to take a 6-6 Florida team. So Catlett’s staff decided to reach down in the Big Ten standings for 6-6 Ohio State, creating a rematch of the 2007 BCS title game. The announced attendance was 61,312.
“We look at how fans are going to travel, what kind of TV ratings the game will generate and what kind of sex appeal the game will have,” Catlett said.
Based on those comments, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Gator Bowl went with a matchup of Michigan vs. Georgia, even if both teams finish 7-5.
It’s uncertain how Gophers fans would respond if the team heads back to Houston. Jamey Rootes, executive director of the Texas Bowl, said he wouldn’t mind having the Gophers back, based on how they represented themselves last year before and after the 34-31 loss to Texas Tech.
“If you had your druthers, you certainly would want a fresh matchup on an annual basis,” Rootes said. “But I never say never. Minnesota was a great participant.”