The Gophers know they've improved, but a winning record from a bowl victory would provide validation.
HOUSTON - The score meant virtually nothing to the college football world, just two also-ran programs seeing which one could break its losing streak and which one would extend its skid. But Minnesota's 27-7 victory over Illinois to close the Gophers' 2011 season resonated with MarQueis Gray and his teammates for months to come.
"When you would go into the weight room, you still had that swagger. Practice, meetings, it just helped that you felt like you ended it the right way, and it makes you want to get back. There's nothing like winning," the senior quarterback said. "It increases the confidence of players coming back, and the freshmen coming in."
And that was the benefit of beating a disintegrating Illini team that dumped its coach practically before it got back home. Now imagine the payoff if the Gophers could somehow wrap up their football season with a victory for the third consecutive season -- this time by whipping an offensive powerhouse that at one point this season was ranked among the top 15 in the nation.
Oh yeah -- Friday's Meineke Car Care Bowl means something to the Gophers. Something big.
"This is the game that will sum up our season," Gray said, a dauntless statement given Minnesota's status as a two-touchdown underdog to Texas Tech. "This hasn't been the season I wanted to go out with, but we got to a bowl game. And my other goal was to win a bowl game. That's what I'm playing for."
His teammates are playing for one more thing, too: For the right to call themselves winners. The Gophers are 6-6 but haven't finished a season above .500 since 2008 and haven't won a bowl game since 2004.
"A 6-7 season is a losing season, and we don't want to leave the younger guys going into next year off a losing season," senior cornerback Troy Stoudermire said. "It doesn't feel like we've been losing a lot, because obviously we had trouble in the past. It's different now. We're a lot better this year than we were, so it's important that the record" reflect it.
There's no doubt that 7-6 just feels different from 6-7, so much so that "you don't really want to talk about" the latter, coach Jerry Kill said. "You want to talk about success. But we all know what it feels like when you're not successful. It makes us pretty focused to see what we can do to win a bowl game."
As important as a winning season would be, Stoudermire said he won't define the 2012 season by what happens Friday. After the death in the spring of former linebacker Gary Tinsley, after their coach's health problems, after the defection of receiver A.J. Barker and the fading interest among their own ticket-buying fans, the Gophers have gone through too much to consider 2012 a failure. Say what you want about feasting on pigeon in September, but the Gophers are here. After a two-year postseason absence, they know it beats the alternative.
"It's definitely been a success. We've been through so much this year, and we worked so hard," Stoudermire said. "There were some games we let get away from us, but we accomplished our goal. Now we just want to win."
The challenge is a little larger than it would normally be, given the circumstances, but Kill said the Red Raiders' talent level would make a victory even more delicious. Even though the Red Raiders are 7-5, have lost four of their past five games, and lost their coach a week after accepting the bowl invitation, they are a dangerous team and possessors of the nation's second-most formidable passing attack. In a normal season, without two of the Big Ten's traditional powers sidelined from the postseason as punishment for NCAA infractions, Minnesota's record would have pushed it down the bowl ladder another couple of steps, into a matchup with another .500 team or perhaps a Mid-American Conference member.
Instead, the Gophers drew a team that owns victories this season against bowl teams such as West Virginia and TCU. Is this a mismatch?
Not all all, Gray insisted.
"We feel like we left wins out there, games we should have won. We could have had a better record," he said. "They're a good team, and so are we."
Maybe so. Their record could go either way.