It’s the same bowl as last year, with a new name, but at least the Gophers will face a different opponent, and at least it’s another chance to make this a nine-win season.
That’s how the Gophers took Sunday’s news that they’d fallen to the bottom of the Big Ten’s bowl pecking order and were heading back to Houston, this time to face Syracuse on Dec. 27 in the Texas Bowl.
That game was known as the Meineke Car Care Bowl last year, when the Gophers came in as 13-point underdogs against Texas Tech and blew a seven-point lead in a 34-31 defeat.
“I look at it as a great opportunity,” Gophers coach Jerry Kill said. “We have a great opportunity to compete and continue to make history as a team. Winning nine games is important to us. Winning a bowl game’s important to us.”
The Gophers (8-4) have won nine games in a season just once since 1905. That came in 2003, when they finished 10-3 under Glen Mason. They are 0-5 in their past five bowl games, with their last victory coming over Alabama in the 2004 Music City Bowl.
Minnesota should be favored against Syracuse (6-6), which finished 4-4 this year in its first season in the ACC. The Gophers defeated the Orange 17-10 last year at TCF Bank Stadium.
Under new coach Scott Shafer, Syracuse opened this season with losses to Penn State and Northwestern. In conference play, the Orange defeated North Carolina State, Maryland and Wake Forest before squeaking into a bowl game by defeating Boston College 34-31.
Syracuse didn’t allow an opposing rusher to gain more than 100 yards in a game.
“It’s great motivation to prepare and take on the challenge head-on.” said Gophers running back David Cobb, who had six games of more than 100 yards this season.
The Texas Bowl has a tie-in to the Big 12, and many projections had the Gophers playing Texas Tech again in Houston. But when the Big 12 landed two teams in BCS bowls —Baylor and Oklahoma — it moved other teams up, with Texas Tech going to the Holiday Bowl.
With no other bowl-eligible teams from the Big 12, the Texas Bowl got to pick from another conference.
As Kill noted, the Gophers were fortunate to reach Houston last year. They were 6-6 but climbed the Big Ten’s pecking order because Penn State and Ohio State were not bowl-eligible.
“So we really keep moving up, if you really take a look at it,” Kill said. “I look at it as a tremendous positive for recruiting.”
Still, the Gophers had lobbied to get into the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl (Dec. 28 in Tempe, Ariz.) and Gator Bowl (Jan. 1 in Jacksonville, Fla.). But those bowls got to pick ahead of the Texas Bowl.
The Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl chose Michigan even though the Wolverines are 7-5. And the Gator Bowl chose Nebraska (8-4) even though its game against Georgia will be a rematch of last year’s Capital One Bowl.
It’s all about selling tickets, and Michigan and Nebraska’s fan bases traditionally travel to bowl games in far greater numbers than Gophers fans.
“If people feel that way, then we can go into this game with a chip on our shoulder,” Gophers senior Brock Vereen said. “And make sure people know for next year that this team is to be taken seriously.”
• Vereen (injured shoulder) and Cobb (injured knee) both expect to play in the bowl game. Gophers guard Caleb Bak (concussion) is making progress and could play as well, Kill said.
• Gophers center Brian Bobek, a transfer from Ohio State who missed this season while recovering from a heart infection, has been cleared to play in 2014.
“He practiced very well the other day,” Kill said.
“I was excited for him. Now he gets to practice all during this bowl preparation. That’s going to be good for him. He’s quite a story.”