The low point that ended September for the Gophers football team — a 14-10 home loss to Bowling Green — gave way to a bountiful October that featured a four-game winning streak and vaulted the squad to the top of the Big Ten's West Division standings.
Now that November has arrived, the Gophers have all their aspirations in the conference sitting right there to grab — if their reach allows. At 6-2 overall and 4-1 in the Big Ten, they enter the regular season-ending four-game stretch with a one-game lead over their likeliest pursuers, Wisconsin and Iowa. The Gophers play the Hawkeyes on Nov. 13 in Iowa City and the Badgers in the finale on Nov. 27 in Minneapolis.
How they fare against those two trophy-game rivals, plus in Saturday's home game against Illinois and the Nov. 20 trip to Indiana, will determine if the 2021 season ends up in the good, great or exceptional category and if it includes a trip to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship Game.
Their 41-14 victory at Northwestern on Saturday guaranteed the Gophers will be playing in some sort of bowl. Whether that game is tied to a scent (Rose), taste (Citrus, Outback) or sightseeing experience (Las Vegas, Music City, Pinstripe) will play out between now and Dec. 5.
"We get to determine which one we get to go to," coach P.J. Fleck said after the win over the Wildcats. "It's in our control, and that's all we want to be able to do."
The Gophers have been in this November position before, as recently as two years ago. In 2019, they started the month with a bang in a field-storming, 31-26 triumph over No. 5 Penn State in a matchup of unbeatens. A week later, however, Minnesota got off to a horrible start in a 23-19 loss at Iowa. Two weeks after that, Wisconsin won Paul Bunyan's Axe, 38-17 at TCF Bank Stadium, and took the West title via the head-to-head tiebreaker.
This year's veteran-laden Gophers team will use that experience as both knowledge and fuel.
"We have a lot of guys who were on that team and know how close we were to reaching that vision of being able to play in the Big Ten Championship Game and an opportunity to go to the Rose Bowl," quarterback Tanner Morgan said. "Just understanding that literally it just comes down to the details every single Saturday, finding ways and opportunities to win."
Added center John Michael Schmitz, "Lesson learned. We're ready to go this year."
That starts with avoiding a slip-up against Illinois, a team that two weeks ago upset Penn State in nine overtimes. Morgan uses Fleck's "one-game championship season" mantra each week as blinders to outside distractions.
"If we don't win this week," Morgan noted, "who knows what next week holds?"
Staying focused on the present shouldn't be difficult for the Gophers, who have plenty going on within their walls. On Saturday, running back Bryce Williams was lost in the first quarter to a lower left leg injury, and his status going forward isn't yet known. That left talented freshmen Mar'Keise Irving and Ky Thomas to shoulder the rushing burden, and they each surpassed 100 yards as the Gophers ran for 308. That duo will be buttressed by Derik LeCaptain, a converted linebacker/special teams player who had a physical 24-yard TD run Saturday.
"No matter who's back there, we've got our heads down and grinding all the time," Schmitz said. "It's our identity to run the ball."
The Gophers, week by week, are pursuing another identity — West Division champs. November will tell if they grab it.