Some fans might have rolled their eyes Sunday, when news broke that the 5-7 Gophers were heading to the Quick Lane Bowl to play Central Michigan on Dec. 28 in Detroit.
But coach Tracy Claeys and his players stressed the positives. It’s a chance to play in another NFL stadium — the Lions’ Ford Field — and a chance to win a bowl game, something Minnesota hasn’t done since 2004.
Yes, the Gophers got picked as a replacement because the NCAA didn’t have 80 teams reach bowl eligibility with six victories. But the reason Minnesota is going bowling, and some other 5-7 teams aren’t, is because of its turnaround with the Academic Progress Rate.
“Our APR is good; we’re proud of the kids for that,” Claeys said. “So we got picked for a bowl within the rules that are in place, and we’re happy to get a chance to go.”
Central Michigan won five of its past six games to finish 7-5, including 6-2 in the Mid-American Conference.
“They’ve played a tough schedule as well and competed with some really good teams,” quarterback Mitch Leidner said. “It’s by no means an easy game for us at all. We’re definitely going to have to come ready to play.”
This will be the Gophers’ fourth consecutive bowl appearance, and it wouldn’t have happened without their improvement in the classroom.
The APR is an annual snapshot of how programs are faring academically, measuring how well the players are progressing toward graduation. In 2009, under then-coach Tim Brewster, the Gophers posted a multiyear score of 915, prompting the NCAA to take away three scholarships.
In the latest APR report, released in May, the Gophers’ multiyear score was 975. This proved even more significant last week, when the NCAA announced that the selection of any 5-7 teams needed to fill in bowl spots would be based on the latest APR scores.
There are 40 bowl games now, and with the NCAA having 80 spots to fill, only 77 teams qualified with six wins.
The three 5-7 replacement spots went to Nebraska (985 APR), the Gophers and San Jose State (975).
Missouri (976) declined a bowl invitation, but the Gophers jumped at it, knowing they’ll get 15 extra practices.
“I visited with the seniors during the week and had meetings with the team,” Claeys said. “And I think this group deserves the opportunity to finish out the season on a win for everything we’ve been through.”
That’s a reference to the huge spate of injuries the Gophers faced this season and their losses to six teams ranked in the Associated Press Top 25.
Claeys said the Gophers could have “at least four or five” players back from injury for the bowl game, including cornerback Jalen Myrick and defensive tackle Steven Richardson.
“So it’ll be as healthy as we’ve been in the last half of the season,” Claeys said.
Leidner is scheduled to have foot surgery once the season ends.
“It’s something for him to be 100 percent healthy next season; it needs to be fixed,” Claeys said. “He will be ready to play for the bowl game. It’s something that doesn’t have to be done right now.”
Leidner said he and other players were “watching scores” of other games Saturday, tracking their bowl chances. The Gophers only needed either Georgia State or South Alabama — both heavy underdogs — to lose, but Georgia State upset Georgia Southern.
When South Alabama finally lost, after a big comeback against Appalachian State, the Gophers officially knew they’d be bowling.
“I think the reaction was really positive,” Leidner said. “Once it came out [Sunday], I think it’s just a big sigh of relief to be able to go and play again.”