Souhan: Gophers' football success now gets truest test in Badgers

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 20, 2013 - 11:19 AM

Gopher Nation is right to be angry at ESPN for refusing to bring College GameDay to the Minnesota campus. Without the GameDay staff, how will Gopher Nation fill the stadium?

Lost amid the reported euphoria surrounding the Gophers football team’s four-game winning streak are two facts:

1. Huge swaths of seats at TCF Bank Stadium have gone unfilled for victories over two of the big names in college football, Nebraska and Penn State.

2. The Gophers have beaten four teams that, in retrospect, rank somewhere between mediocre and outright lousy.

That’s why this Saturday’s game, against Wisconsin at The Bank, is so important to the Gophers program.

The stage isn’t just set. It’s also empty.

The Vikings are a clown car rolling downhill with burning tires. The winter sports are mired in their early-season slog of uninteresting games. For the first time in years, the Gophers have the most captivating football team in town, the better record, the better quarterbacks, the better coaching staff.

For the first time in decades, Gophers-Wisconsin is more compelling than Vikings-Packers.

These moments don’t arrive often, and it’s incumbent on the Gophers to take advantage of this.

And for Gophers football, the bar is low. All they have to do is avoid getting embarrassed.

Everyone in town understands that Wisconsin has the superior program and team. A competitive loss might actually gain the Gophers more credibility than some of their victories.

Now that the Gophers have climbed the ladder to national respectability, they have to worry about falling. You don’t find out you have vertigo until you get off the ground.

Their 20-17 victory over Northwestern provided sweet relief for a program that seemed a loss or two away from reassessing Jerry Kill’s employability. The Gophers celebrated as if they had won the Rose Bowl.

Now we know that Northwestern was dependent on its two star offensive players who missed the Gophers game and that Northwestern might have to win its last game, at Illinois, to avoid going winless in the Big Ten.

The Gophers’ 34-23 victory over Nebraska shocked because of the history of, and between, the two programs. It was correctly judged to be Kill’s signature victory, as his staff easily outcoached Bo Pelini.

Now we also know that Nebraska has yet to beat a good team this season, unless you count Michigan, which has lost three of its past five.

The Gophers’ 42-39 victory over Indiana provided a hint of karma, as a Minnesota football team actually caught a break when the Hoosiers killed a potential game-winning drive by not covering a lateral. It was correctly viewed as an important victory, because the Gophers rarely win at Indiana, and because it elevated the Gophers’ chances of a winning Big Ten record and a desirable bowl.

Now we also know that Indiana has lost four of its past five and last week lost to Wisconsin 51-3.

Likewise, the Gophers’ 24-10 victory over Penn State should be considered more important than impressive.

Penn State is 3-3 in the Big Ten. Like Nebraska, its only supposedly impressive victory came against a now-suspect Michigan team in four overtimes.

Beat Wisconsin, and Kill can replace the Nebraska win with a true signature victory over an undeniably good team and power program.

Gophers fans hate to admit it, but Wisconsin is their role model, a formerly laughable football program that hired one power coach, Barry Alvarez, and became forever transformed.

That’s why even a victory on Saturday isn’t necessary. If Kill’s players can handle the pressure of playing well after having raised expectations for the program and look like a well-run squad against a superior team in Kill’s third year, they will have served notice to their rivals and the nation that better days are ahead.

Here’s how much the standards have changed for the Gophers football program, thanks to the inane tenure of Tim Brewster:

When a punter dropped a snap and the Gophers lost in shocking fashion to Wisconsin in 2005, fans judged that play to be an indictment of Glen Mason’s program.

If the Gophers lose on Saturday because of a dropped snap, they will be praised for making so much progress.

Jim Souhan can be heard weekdays at noon and Sundays from 10 to noon on 1500 ESPN. His Twitter name is @SouhanStrib. jsouhan@startribune.com

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