It's not often that the Gophers play a Big Ten opponent that is jealous of what they already have, but Michigan State coach Mark D'Antonio made it clear this week how important beating Minnesota -- and matching the Gophers' six-win ticket to a bowl game -- is on Saturday.
"Without question for me, keeping the bowl streak alive [is most important]," D'Antonio, who has led the Spartans (5-6, 2-5) to five consecutive bowl appearances, said at his weekly news conference. "... It's vital for the program. Vital is a strong word, but it's significant that we become bowl-eligible."
He's confident they will, too, noting later that "when we win Saturday -- and I'll say 'when' -- we'll be a 6-6 team."
The Gophers (6-5, 2-5) already know they'll play one more game next month, but that doesn't mean they plan to coast to the regular-season finish. For one thing, it's the final home game for Minnesota's 15-member senior class.
"It's going to be hard to hold back those tears, but I'm going to fight them," said receiver and former quarterback MarQueis Gray. "And if they come, I'm going to let them fall freely and just go out there and get a win."
Doing so would deny the disappointing Michigan State, the defending Legends Division champions, a 13th game -- and probably move the Gophers up in the postseason pecking order. The winner of Saturday's game at TCF Bank Stadium is likely headed to Tempe, Ariz., for the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl next Dec. 29. If the Gophers lose, they would go to Houston for the Dec. 28 Meineke Car Care Bowl or Dallas for the Jan. 1 Heart of Dallas Bowl.
Some Gophers are holding out hope for a visit to the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla., hometown of Gary Tinsley, their teammate who died of an enlarged heart last April. It's possible with a Gophers victory, but probably only if Michigan can beat Ohio State on Saturday, to climb into the top 14 of the BCS rankings, and secure an at-large bid to a BCS bowl that would move the rest of the Big Ten's bowl-eligible teams up one slot.
Winning would have a profound symbolic meaning for the Gophers, too. It would mean a 7-5 regular-season record in coach Jerry Kill's second season, not 6-6.
"It would mean going out a winner," Gray said. "I came here to help Minnesota be a winning team, and we've got a chance to do it."
"I'd say 7-5 does feel better," Kill said. "But as far as the perception, no. I have the team I have, which I'm very proud of."
The Gophers are 3-0 in their season finales at TCF Bank Stadium, but extending that record to four will require juicing up an offense that has been limited to 17 points or fewer in six of their seven Big Ten games. And doing it against the league's stingiest defense, too.
"You're talking about an elite defensive team," offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said. "But the one thing is, we had our best offensive game against them last year [in a 31-24 loss in East Lansing]. And they were highly touted then, too. So the kids have some confidence, I could feel it [in practice]. There was some mojo there."
The Gophers have been short of mojo for several seasons now, so heading to the postseason on a high note would mean a lot, said senior linebacker Mike Rallis.
"I'm happy for this program. I'm excited for the program. I'm glad I got to be part of the beginning toward what hopefully turns this program and gets it going to where it's consistently a great program," Rallis said. "But we've got to finish strong if we want to do that."