The Gophers are 0-7 in bowl games since defeating Alabama in the 2004 Music City Bowl, but they will have an unexpected chance to end that streak this year.
The NCAA has required six victories for bowl eligibility. But with 40 bowls now, there are 80 spots to fill — and only 77 teams qualified by hitting that six-victory mark. The Gophers are one of three 5-7 teams — Nebraska and San Jose State are the others — that still will get a bowl berth Sunday, when pairings are announced.
The Gophers should know their destination by midafternoon Sunday, after the College Football Playoff bracket gets announced at 11:30 a.m., and the other “New Year’s Six” bowls are announced at 2 p.m.
Missouri, another 5-7 team, announced that it wouldn’t accept a bowl bid, so it could focus on finding a replacement for coach Gary Pinkel. But the Gophers weren’t going to pass up this chance, knowing they would get 15 extra practices.
“If you were a veteran team and had a bunch of veteran kids coming back, you’d go, ‘Well, talk about it,’ ” coach Tracy Claeys said. “But the situation we are in, with how many young kids we have coming back and how many young kids we redshirted in the offensive line and in secondary and all that, I think it would be a big help.”
The NCAA based the fill-the-empty-spots pecking order on the most recent Academic Progress Rate (APR) scores, and the Gophers’ grades positioned them well. Only three upsets in Saturday’s games could have pushed the Gophers to the brink of elimination.
Two of those upsets happened Saturday — Kansas State beat West Virginia, and Georgia State beat Georgia Southern to reach six wins — while South Alabama (5-7) rallied from a 17-point halftime deficit to lead against Appalachian State only to fall 34-27.
The Gophers’ destination is uncertain. They’ve been projected to land in the Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit (Dec. 28) or the Pinstripe Bowl in New York (Dec. 26). Both bowls have Big Ten and ACC tie-ins, so potential opponents include Duke, Pittsburgh, North Carolina State and Miami, though the ACC might not have enough eligible teams to fill the Quick Lane Bowl.
Only eight Big Ten teams qualified for bowls with six victories this year, and the conference has 10 bowl tie-ins, which doesn’t even count the New Year’s Six bowls — Orange, Cotton, Rose, Peach, Fiesta and Sugar.
Other lower-tier Big Ten bowl options for the Gophers include the Foster Farms Bowl in Santa Clara, Calif., (Dec. 26 vs. a Pac-12 team) and the Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth, Texas (Dec. 29 vs. a Mountain West team).
The Gophers thought they had to beat Wisconsin last week to reach a bowl game, so their season appeared to end with that 31-21 defeat. But several other 5-6 teams had stumbled that day, too. Quarterback Mitch Leidner was surprised to hear the Gophers still had a chance to make a bowl.
“I think we’d probably be a good candidate based off the schedule we’ve had this season and how well we played against some really good teams,” he said.
Six of the Gophers losses came against teams currently ranked in the Top 25 — Iowa, Ohio State, TCU, Northwestern, Michigan and Wisconsin.
“It would be unbelievable to play another game and get another game for these seniors,” junior linebacker Nick Rallis said.