The biggest home football game for a Minnesota team in my lifetime came on Jan. 17, 1999. My best friend and I had tickets, but a work obligation charting key plays for the game from the office pre-empted my attendance at that fateful NFC title game.
A week’s worth of disappointment leading up to the game quickly gave way to gratitude that I didn’t have to witness that overtime loss to the Falcons at the Metrodome. So much sadness and disappointment in one place.
I was still technically a University of Minnesota student at the time, finishing up a fifth “bonus” year with a few classes while embarking on the very beginning of what has become two decades at the Star Tribune.
The Vikings had vaulted high above everyone else in the local sports pecking order with that charmed 15-1 regular season. The Gophers had finished below .500 for the eighth straight season.
For so many reasons then, it is strange to think this let alone write this: Saturday’s matchup at TCF Bank Stadium between the Gophers and Badgers is the biggest home game for a Minnesota football team since that Vikings/Falcons game in terms of pregame anticipation and what’s at stake.
The Vikings have had some big ones since then — including a playoff game that produced the Minneapolis Miracle and a regular-season game pitting Brett Favre against his rival former team — but their biggest ones have been on the road: three NFC title game losses after the 2000, 2009 and 2017 seasons.
The Gophers have had some big ones, too — most notably in 2003 against Michigan.
And if we are counting neutral opponents, there was a pretty big game here a couple of years ago between the Patriots and Eagles.
But since that fateful day in early 1999, this is the biggest of the Minnesota home football games. It earns that right by order of magnitude, hype and opponent.
The stakes seem pretty clear: A win by the Gophers would give them the Big Ten West title, a berth in the conference championship against Ohio State and a prime opportunity to earn at least a Rose Bowl bid — the dream of a lot of people far older than me. Wins over Wisconsin and Ohio State would vault Minnesota into the College Football Playoff discussion.
A loss to Wisconsin — by the way, Minnesota’s biggest rival — would give the Badgers the West title and leave the Gophers at 10-2. That’s a dream season under most circumstances and would lead to a strong bowl game bid, but it would also fall short of redrawn fantasy expectations.
Add to the mix a first-ever visit from ESPN’s “College GameDay,” the traveling show that celebrates the biggest and best things in the sport.
Gophers fans are now spending their social media debate time wondering which local celebrity will be the guest picker on “GameDay” (Bud Grant, perhaps?) and whether they would PREFER the Rose Bowl or the College Football Playoff (you want to try to win a championship, right?).
The only games that I can imagine would be clearly bigger: The Vikings hosting the Packers in an NFC title game or the scenario that was one game away from reality two seasons ago, playing here in the Super Bowl.
Babies born early in that 1998 Vikings season are now able to legally purchase alcohol (and I imagine a few of them just might do that Saturday).
It’s been that long since a local team played in a home game like this. If the outcome is different this time, the party might never stop.