As the Gophers head south Thursday for the Outback Bowl, they will embark on a balancing act to end the 2019 football season — mixing business with pleasure.
On Jan. 1, the Gophers, ranked 16th in the Associated Press poll, will face No. 9 Auburn. A victory could catapult the Gophers into at least a top-15 ranking heading into preparations for 2020. But in the six days leading up to that showdown in Tampa, Fla., vacation vibes will abound. A bowling night, a Busch Gardens outing, an NHL game, a beach day. Plus just generally basking in 75-degree sunshine while Minnesota remains chilly and overcast.
“I think everybody’s kind of looking forward to it, with people starting to see snow on the ground now,” said receiver Rashod Bateman, a Georgia native.
The Gophers found out their bowl destination Dec. 8, a week after their regular-season finale. Coach P.J. Fleck said he gave the team that week between the end of the season and the announcement off, a chance to decompress, recover from any injuries and focus on upcoming finals. The next week was essentially a spring ball preview, with many of the starters doing really light work while the younger players took more reps. Last week was all opponent work, practicing for Auburn, after the team had been watching film on them since the announcement.
The last practice on campus was Dec. 20, before everyone took another couple days to go home for the holidays. The team reconvened Christmas Day before flying off to Tampa on Thursday.
Fleck said the first day in Florida will be a review practice before a walkthrough Friday. Then the Gophers will start their regular game week routine, treating Saturday like their normal Tuesday practice and so on.
“You get about 11 to 12 practices total towards in the end, which is almost a whole spring ball. And so you’re gaining that,” Fleck said. “That’s how important, when people talk about going to a bowl game, it’s not just where you go and for your fans and everything else, it’s those practices for the younger guys leading them up into spring ball.”
The players seem to be taking this game seriously. While quarterback Tanner Morgan said guys are excited to practice in the sun for a week, they’re trying to keep the actual game as the priority and push all the activities to the background. Safety Antoine Winfield Jr. agreed, even with this possibly being his last game for the Gophers, should the fourth-year player declare for the NFL draft.
“I mean, it’s a business trip,” Winfield said. “At the end of the day, we know what we’re going down there for: to play a football game. It’s cool to be able to build to everything and be down there in Tampa. But we all know that we have to play football, and we have to play our best game coming up.”
Fleck noted how his team has garnered national attention for a 10-2 season this year and will encounter a talented Auburn program, which consistently ranks toward the top of recruiting class rankings. But he also emphasized wanting his players to enjoy this rare experience, especially after a grind of a season.
“Everybody kind of looks outside, steps outside and just can’t wait to get down to Tampa,” Fleck said, adding how the players will pack their own swim trunks for the week. “… They’re very excited. So that’s the anticipation level, one, playing Auburn, but there’s a lot of fun things to do before we play in that game. I think that’s what they’ve earned. They’ve earned the right to have a lot of fun. Enjoy one of the best bowl games in the country, the Outback Bowl, and play one of the best opponents in country.”