A Gophers football program that spent two of its past three bowl trips in Detroit, uncomfortably close to Christmas, is likely to ring in the new year with Florida sunshine.
Sunday is bowl selection day, and the 10-2 Gophers are projected to make the Outback Bowl in Tampa or Citrus Bowl in Orlando. Both include SEC opponents — perhaps Auburn or Alabama — on Jan. 1, which would mark just the second time the Gophers have reached a New Year’s Day bowl game since their last Rose Bowl trip, in 1962.
The Gophers’ only other New Year’s Day game in that span was the 2015 Citrus Bowl, a 33-17 loss to Missouri.
“We’ll look back at the end of the year and see where we’re at, but we have a tremendous bowl game to look forward to,” Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said on WCCO Radio last week. “All our fans coming, hopefully, someplace really warm and really celebrating the year down there.”
Minnesota stirred hope for a possible Rose Bowl trip with a 9-0 start this season before losing to Iowa and Wisconsin down the stretch. Last week’s 38-17 loss to the Badgers cost the Gophers a Big Ten Championship Game berth and plunged the Gophers 10 spots to No. 18 in the College Football Playoff rankings.
Still, the Gophers are far better positioned than four years ago, when they went 5-7 and backed their way into the Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit, where they defeated Central Michigan. Last season, the Gophers went 6-6, earning another trip to Detroit, where they pounded Georgia Tech.
This season, all signs point to Florida based on the Big Ten’s rules for selections, including how this is the final year of a six-year agreement with various bowls, and many teams aren’t allowed to repeat appearances. Projections have the Gophers playing either No. 11 Auburn or No. 12 Alabama. The latter would be a rematch of the 2004 Music City Bowl in Nashville, where the Gophers defeated the Crimson Tide 20-16.
“We have one more opportunity to play together as a team,” senior defensive end Winston DeLattiboudere said. “We’re very excited about it. And then we’re just going to go out there and love each other one more time when we go and play, wherever it may be.”
Fleck said while the Wisconsin defeat made it clear his players can play better, and he can coach better, the team will use that experience to learn and grow for next season. But the bowl game will be a time for festivity rather than frustration. And it could also act as a jumping-off point, like their 34-10 rout of Georgia Tech in Detroit.
Immediately after the Wisconsin loss, DeLattiboudere was already urging his younger teammates to hold their heads high and be ready for that bowl game.
“I feel like you kind of just want to play all the way up until you can’t play anymore,” DeLattiboudere said. “Wanting to go home, that hasn’t been a thought that even crossed my mind for half a second this whole season. This has been one of the best seasons I’ve ever had in my 16 years of playing football.”
And it’s not quite over yet.