With an 8-4 regular season in the books, Gophers coach Jerry Kill stood before his players in the losing locker room at Michigan State on Saturday and reminded them about history.
Since 1905, the Gophers have won nine games in a season just once. That was their 10-3 season under Glen Mason in 2003.
As Kill was quick to note, Minnesota’s five national championship teams from the 1930s and 40s only got to play eight games apiece, but his point was that a ninth win would still be pretty meaningful.
“There’s no question — we want to go win a bowl game,” Kill said Sunday of the message he gave his team.
The Gophers are 0-5 in bowl games since they defeated Alabama 20-16 in the 2004 Music City Bowl, so they’ll also have a chance to end that streak.
Last year, Kill took a 6-6 team to the Meineke Car Care Bowl in Houston, and the Gophers blew a late lead in a 34-31 loss to heavily favored Texas Tech.
Minnesota won’t know this year’s bowl destination until next Sunday, but it’s almost certain to be the Gator Bowl (Jan. 1 in Jacksonville, Fla.), the Texas Bowl (Dec. 27 in Houston) or the Heart of Dallas Bowl (also Jan. 1).
In that order, those three bowls get their pick of Big Ten teams, regardless of the teams’ records, and the Gator Bowl will be hard-pressed to pass up Michigan, even with the Wolverines at 7-5.
Most signs point the Gophers back to Houston, with the possibility that they could fall to Dallas if the Big Ten lands only one team in a BCS bowl. Like last year, athletic director Norwood Teague and his staff will be lobbying to get the Gophers to the best bowl possible.
“All I care about is who we’re going to play and that we’re going to a bowl game,” Kill said. “All of them help us. Texas helps us and Florida helps us, because we recruit both places.”
In the Gator Bowl, the Gophers would face an SEC team, with Vanderbilt, Georgia and Texas A&M possibilities, at 8-4.
In the Texas Bowl, the Gophers most likely would face a Big 12 team, with Kansas State and Texas Tech possibilities, at 7-5.
In the Heart of Dallas Bowl, the Gophers would face a team from Conference USA, such as Marshall, Rice or East Carolina, all 9-3.
The Gophers can’t wait to see how they match up outside the conference after a 4-4 Big Ten season that exceeded most expectations, aside from their own. In the preseason media poll, they were picked to finish last in the Legends Division but wound up finishing ahead of Michigan (3-5) and Northwestern (1-7).
Minnesota’s defense will look to build off its performances in the past two regular-season games — a 20-7 loss to Wisconsin followed by a 14-3 loss at Michigan State.
“We were in both of those games, if we just make some more plays and score,” running back David Cobb said. “We’re not satisfied with losing to Wisconsin or Michigan State … but we’ll learn from it, and the offense will definitely be better in the bowl game.”
The offense has played 10 consecutive quarters without a touchdown. But Michigan State leads the nation in total defense, and Minnesota did everything but push the ball across the goal line. The Gophers reached the 1-yard line once and the 11-yard line twice but managed just three points out of those three drives.
“They’re a good football team; they’ve changed a lot,” Spartans linebacker Max Bullough said. “That coaching staff does an outstanding job. They were able to run the ball on us more than we would have liked.”
Michigan State came in leading the Big Ten in time of possession, yet Minnesota held the ball for 38:41, compared with 21:19 for the Spartans.
“Michigan State’s undefeated in the conference, and we played them as well as anybody,” Kill said. “So that should give us a huge amount of confidence, not only going into the bowl game but into next season.”