The Gophers football program made a big jump in P.J. Fleck’s third season, carrying a 10-2 record into Sunday’s bowl selection.
But here’s the question: Has he elevated the program beyond where his predecessors took it, or is there work to be done before we can say that?
First take: Michael Rand
If we are looking only at raw facts, I think there is work to be done still.
Jerry Kill had them in a spot in 2014 where a victory over Wisconsin would mean a Big Ten West title, with the Gophers falling short then as they did this year. If the Gophers lose their bowl game, they will finish 10-3 — same record they had in 2003 under Glen Mason.
This program has had moments. What it had never quite been able to do is: 1) capitalize consistently in those biggest spots and 2) build on its breakthrough seasons to consistently reach a new baseline level of success.
So to me, Fleck’s tenure will be defined as much by 2020 as 2019.
Chip Scoggins: I look at it this way: Does the program have momentum and more energy now? Absolutely. Has it arrived completely at a new level? Not yet. The next mile marker will be for them to win the West Division and go to a Rose Bowl.
A 10-2 season represents an important step, but what happens next is equally important. They have to continue to ascend and stack another successful season on top of 2019 to show they’re capable of sustaining momentum. Consistency is everything.
Rand: Yeah, I think that’s fair. And the flip side is that in some important ways the Gophers did achieve things this season that hadn’t been done before.
Minnesota fans had a reason (for the first time) to pay attention to the College Football Playoff rankings, and the talk of the Gophers being in the top four was legitimate right up until last weekend.
And getting ESPN’s “College GameDay” on campus is a harder-to-quantify but important step.
I just don’t want to overvalue a season that in large part came down to timing and schedule. If the Gophers had lost to Wisconsin and Iowa early in the year instead of late, would we still feel the same way?
Scoggins: The schedule undeniably set the course for this season. Many people predicted and expected an 8-0 start. That certainly created a wave of emotion and interest for the Penn State game.
But to me, the goal is to be relevant in November every season, even if that means a loss earlier in the season. Be in the hunt for the division title late in the season. Play meaningful games when it matters.
The schedule will be more challenging next season, but I believe the Gophers have enough returning talent — especially on offense — to contend in the West again. I can’t see them being picked sixth in the division in the preseason poll again next fall.
Rand: But if the model is to be like Wisconsin — er, to build a program similar to what the Badgers have built in the last quarter-century — we might have to remember that patience is a virtue.
Wisconsin went to its first Rose Bowl under Barry Alvarez after the 1993 season; two years later, the Badgers won only four games.
Scoggins: Agree, patience is necessary. But the Gophers are trying to build a program while also maintaining relevance in a pro market. More people paid attention to Gophers football this fall than I can remember. TV ratings, attendance and atmosphere at TCF Bank Stadium the final two games and the “GameDay” spectacle support that.
Fleck is trying to turn this into a national program/brand. In that sense, another strong showing in 2020 is vital.