A year ago, the Gophers bundled up for Christmas in Detroit. Now, they’ll be shedding layers for New Year’s in Florida.
For just the second time since 1962, the Gophers will play on New Year’s Day, facing Auburn in the Outback Bowl in Tampa, Fla. It’s a dramatic comparison to last season’s Quick Lane Bowl against Georgia Tech, which the Gophers won handily, setting them up for a historic 10-2 season in 2019.
“It’s huge,” quarterback Tanner Morgan said Sunday of how his team has continued to progress. “… I’m very proud of this team and where we’ve come since January to now, the decisions guys have made to just hunker down and work.”
Grinding through a season in which the Gophers recorded seven Big Ten victories for the first time and a 10-win season for the first time since 1905 has helped the team earn the reward of escaping Minnesota winter for some warm Gulf of Mexico breezes.
But the presented matchup might be an even greater draw than the beach.
The No. 18 Gophers will face No. 12 Auburn, a 9-3 SEC team. The teams have never met, but the Gophers know the name and what challenge the Tigers will present on an. 1.
Morgan said he caught two of Auburn’s games this season — the season opener when the blue blood program took down No. 11 Oregon and the regular-season finale when the Tigers toppled No. 5 Alabama. He called the prospect of going up against such a team “exciting.”
Gophers coach P.J. Fleck has already started showing his players Auburn’s film, though they won’t start practicing for the opponent until Saturday. In the meantime, the coaches will continue to recruit ahead of the Dec. 18 early signing day while the coordinators game-plan.
“They’re big. They’re fast. They’re strong. Their running back [JaTarvious Whitlow] is powerful. Their quarterback [Bo Nix] is shifty,” defensive end Winston DeLattiboudere said. “So we’re kind of like tuning up on a lot of different things that we have going on defensively to be able to combat what they have going on. We’re watching their offensive line, how they come off the ball specifically at every single position. And then we’re watching the different packages that they have.”
Fleck said the time each team has to strategize will surely lead to new wrinkles in the game as well as different players, since it could be an opportunity to give some younger guys experience. A 34-10 showing in the Quick Lane Bowl last year seemed to spark the Gophers’ success this season. But Morgan said a bowl game win isn’t “life and death.”
The stakes are higher, though. The last time the Gophers went to a New Year’s Day bowl was the Jan. 1, 2015, Citrus Bowl, a 33-17 loss to Missouri after an 8-4 season. The 1962 Rose Bowl win was the other Jan. 1 appearance.
“The level of our bowl game has completely changed. I mean, it has risen to a completely different level,” Fleck said. “… You’re playing one of the top 12 teams in the country in Auburn, and you know what they bring to the table. And one of the best bowl games you can possibly go to that’s not a New Year’s Six bowl is the Outback Bowl. So I think that level changes, and the expectation changes, and the level of competition changes. And I think that’s very healthy for your program.”
That’s what has DeLattiboudere most enthusiastic. While he said a New Year’s Day game in a tropical locale against an SEC team with the whole nation watching will be a “Cinderella storybook ending” for all the graduating players, this game is more important for the future.
“They’re kind of seeing, OK, a New Year’s bowl is the bowl that we want to be in. We don’t want anything less than that,” DeLattiboudere said. “… They see the work that it takes from the summer all the way up until now to be able to do that. So now from the winter all the way back until December again next year, they’re going to know what they need to pour into the cup in order to get the same result.