CHAMPAIGN, ILL. - Gophers fans sitting near the team's locker room Saturday were chanting "Gator Bowl, Gator Bowl," as the team ran off the field after Saturday's 17-3 victory over Illinois.
They were probably about a time zone off.
The Big Ten's bowl picture came into greater focus on Saturday, and for Gophers fans the theme is: Holidays in Houston. Minnesota appears all but certain to be headed to the Meineke Car Care Bowl on Dec. 28 in Houston. That bowl owns the sixth pick of Big Ten teams, although with upsets of Nebraska next week and Michigan State in the season finale, the Gophers obviously could improve their standing.
The Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl in Tempe, Ariz. (formerly the Insight Bowl, where Minnesota's last three postseason appearances took place) owns the fifth pick and, yes, the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla., chooses fourth.
"Anywhere it's warm is beautiful," senior defensive end D.L. Wilhite said. "It's just great to get another opportunity to play in a bowl game, because it's been two long, hard years of struggling. This will be fun."
It's virtually certain now that the Big Ten will not fill all eight of its bowl obligations. Iowa and Indiana each lost its sixth game of the season Saturday, all but knocking those teams out of the postseason, and Illinois is already out. Iowa must sweep Michigan and Nebraska to qualify, while Indiana needs to win games at both Penn State and Purdue to reach bowl eligibility.
Ohio State and Penn State are on probation and cannot play in a bowl game this season, but four other teams, entering Saturday, had already ensured they will play an extra game. Wisconsin, which clinched the Leaders Division's berth in the Big Ten championship game by beating Indiana, will play for a spot in its third consecutive Rose Bowl, while Nebraska, Michigan and Northwestern are all also going to the postseason.
All are likely to be selected ahead of the Gophers for bowl berths, starting with the Rose, Capital One and Outback games, as is Michigan State, which is 5-5 with games remaining against Northwestern and the Gophers. It's possible, though, that the Spartans will be playing for their postseason lives when they arrive in Minneapolis in two weeks.
One other Big Ten team still has bowl hopes: Purdue. By recording their first Big Ten victory of the season Saturday, the Boilermakers improved to 4-6, with games remaining against Illinois and Indiana. Sweep them, and it's possible the Meineke Car Care Bowl would have a choice between the Boilermakers and the Gophers, who walloped Purdue 44-28 last month.
Whichever team is not chosen could then be taken by the Heart of Dallas Bowl, which will be played Jan. 1 in the Cotton Bowl. The Meineke Car Care Bowl is in Houston's Reliant Stadium.
"I'm happy for the seniors, those older kids," Gophers coach Jerry Kill said. "When you have a coaching transition, that's a hard thing for them. It's been tough. Those kids, they've been through a lot."