The 2020 Gophers went 3-4 and avoided a game with Big Ten West champion Northwestern due to their COVID-19 concerns. There were no standards as to what qualified a team to participate as surviving bowl games scrambled to fill their slots, meaning even coach P.J. Fleck's outfit with a .429 winning percentage had a shot.
Fleck made it clear he wasn't interested, not because he was sheepish over a flop of a shortened season, but because he didn't want his players isolated from families on Christmas, eating a boxed lunch.
Fleck envisioned an empty campus in Minneapolis before taking a trip to a lower-tier bowl game and said in a Zoom last December: "You are talking about 11 days of doing what? Sitting there, doing nothing. Like doing nothing besides football in the hours we are allowed. Then also have boxed lunches. Boxed breakfasts. Boxed dinners. And that's going to be memorable?"
Fleck's five-year anniversary as Gophers coach will be marked on Jan. 6, although highlight videos of him crowd-surfing in a winning locker room are likely to be lost amidst one-year anniversary videos of Trumpeters crowd-foaming toward the doors of Congress.
In these five years, Fleck somehow took the Gophers from annually being "the youngest team in America" to suddenly being the oldest in 2021. They finished 6-3 in the Big Ten and tied for second in the "B" Division, also known as the Big Ten West, and with two teams they defeated: Purdue and Wisconsin.
There were nine Big Ten teams originally selected for bowl games, and when you go by the alleged payout for participating teams, the Gophers wound up ninth in the pecking order and landed in Tuesday night's Guaranteed Rate Bowl in Phoenix.
The kickoff occurred at 9:25 p.m. Central and the foe was West Virginia, 6-6 overall and 4-5 in the Big 12. The Gophers were five-point favorites and that looked light by about three touchdowns from the start.
Through three possessions apiece, West Virginia ran 11 plays for six yards and the Gophers had 21 plays for 148 yards. It was only 8-0, because a missed chip shot field goal and a lost fumble stopped the Gophers twice in deep.
The monstrous offensive line allowed the Gophers to rush for over 250 yards and a fierce pass rush battered slow-reacting quarterback Jarret Doege — overall, a complete mismatch physically that wasn't reflected in the final: Gophers 18, Mountaineers 6.
All in all, the Gophers were showing off the muscles of a team that deserved much more than dropping to the ninth slot in Big Ten bowls. The only thing I can figure with the disdain toward the Gophers is that Jimmy John's is an important sponsor for ESPN, the bowl power-broker, and it was punishment for Fleck's anti-boxed lunch stance.
Even worse, a 10th Big Ten team, Rutgers, wound up replacing Texas A&M in the well-paying, long-running Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla. Rutgers was 2-7 in the Big Ten, and now it's the opener in a New Year's Eve tripleheader, followed by the playoff semifinals.
Sometimes life is too generous.
All bowl games below the major six do come with an "alleged" in front of the payout. ESPN owns 13 of the bowls, runs a few others, and takes rights fees out of one pocket and puts them in the other.
The probable red-ink trip to Phoenix is not an issue issue with the Gophers' bottom line. The Big Ten splits the overall bowl take among members, and with Michigan in the playoff, and Michigan State and Ohio State also in major six games, the U athletic department will be getting a check large enough to cover one of the low-cost programs recently chopped, if athletic director Mark Coyle was so inclined.
The promotional information claims this as the 32nd Guaranteed Rate Bowl, although it is actually the first with that title.
The game started as the Copper Bowl in 1989 in Tucson, became the Insight Bowl from 1997 through 2011 (moving to the Phoenix area in 2000), the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl in 2012-13, the Cactus Bowl from 2014 to 2017, the Cheez-It Bowl in 2018-19, and titled but not played as the Guaranteed Rate in 2020.
The Gophers were trying to end a snake-bit 0-3 in this multi-titled event on Tuesday. They played in three Insight Bowls in four Decembers from 2006 to 2009, and those contests hold a storied place in Gophers gridiron lore.
The first came in 2006, as the Gophers allowed a 31-point lead in the third quarter to slip away: a 44-41 overtime loss to Texas Tech that led to the firing of a competent coach, Glen Mason.
The next two came in 2008 and 2009, a 42-21 blowout loss to Kansas that allowed the once 7-1 Gophers to finish 7-6, and an incredibly ugly 14-13 loss to Iowa State that put coach Tim Brewster in jeopardy entering 2010, when he lasted seven games.
Which leaves the question: How did a Gophers team that finished 6-3 in the Big Ten wind up in a bowl so low on the pecking order that Coach Brew went to it twice?