They’ve canvassed the Sun Belt, from Birmingham to Shreveport, Nashville to El Paso and Tempe to Houston.
They’ve played bowl games before and after Christmas, including last year’s Texas Bowl, on Dec. 27, before a sad crowd that might not have reached 10,000 inside a 71,000-seat stadium.
But the Gophers haven’t played in a New Year’s Day bowl game since they defeated UCLA in the 1962 Rose Bowl.
This explained the big smiles Sunday, when the Gophers learned they were heading to the Citrus Bowl, on Jan. 1 in Orlando for a game against SEC East champion Missouri.
“I’m excited for our players; they’ve worked so hard,” coach Jerry Kill said. “I’m excited for our university, and for our fans and state. I think it’s a great thing for all of us.”
Internally, the Gophers (8-4, 5-3 Big Ten) were convinced last week that their streak without a New Year’s Day bowl would continue. It took a few breaks to make Orlando happen.
The Gophers knew it was a good sign when the College Football Playoff selection committee inexplicably vaulted Mississippi State three spots to No. 7, one notch ahead of Michigan State. This happened even though neither MSU team played last week.
The Orange Bowl had an agreement to take the highest-ranked SEC or Big Ten team that didn’t make the four-team playoff. Suddenly, that was Mississippi State instead of the Spartans.
Why did that matter to the No. 25 Gophers? Well, the guidelines now say that if a Big Ten team lands an Orange Bowl bid, it can’t get a Citrus Bowl bid. Apparently, that’s too much Florida for a bunch of Northerners, and companies can’t manufacture enough sunscreen.
Actually, the Mississippi State jump helped ensure all 10 bowl-eligible teams in the Big Ten could get a bowl assignment. Otherwise, Illinois (6-6) might have been in jeopardy of missing the cut.
With Ohio State included in the four-team College Football Playoff, and Michigan State heading to the Cotton Bowl, that left the Citrus Bowl to pick from rest of the Big Ten.
One thing working against the Gophers in recent decades is how much better these other fan bases have traveled to bowls.
“This is a great opportunity for us to do a good job playing, and it’s a great opportunity for our fans,” Kill said. “We’ve got a lot of people down in Florida. We need to show the country that hey, ‘We are Minnesota, and we want you to know we’ve got great support.’ ”
The Big Ten was determined not to send teams back to the same bowl games this year, something the Gophers can appreciate after making back-to-back trips to Houston.
So the Citrus Bowl couldn’t pick Wisconsin (10-3), since the Badgers played in the Citrus Bowl last year, when it was still called the Capital One Bowl.
The Gophers had feared they’d get trumped by Nebraska (9-3), but the Cornhuskers played in the Capital One Bowl in both 2011 and 2012, and also played in the Gator Bowl last year in Jacksonville, Fla.
So the Cornhuskers are heading to the Holiday Bowl (Dec. 27 in San Diego). Wisconsin landed back in Tampa for the Outback Bowl, for the first time since 2007.
And the Gophers got their first trip to Florida for a bowl game since 2000, when they lost to North Carolina State in the MicronPC.com Bowl in Fort Lauderdale.
“I’m surprised, I’m excited, Christmas came early,” Gophers senior Cameron Botticelli said.
Missouri (10-3) will test the Gophers’ growth. The Tigers (No. 16 CFP) suffered a stunning loss to Indiana in September and lost 34-0 to Georgia two games later. But the Tigers reeled off six straight victories to win their second consecutive division title before losing the SEC title game to Alabama 42-13.
“Watching them play Alabama, they’re a very competitive team,” Gophers junior Theiren Cockran said. “To get that win, it would be huge for the Big Ten.”
The Gophers are 0-6 in bowl games since they beat Alabama in the 2004 Music City Bowl. They were big underdogs against Texas Tech two years ago in Houston but blew a seven-point lead in the game’s final two minutes. Last year, the Gophers were favored against Syracuse but blew another late lead in a 21-17 loss.
“I’m glad you raised that point,” Botticelli said. “It’s terrific that we’ve been selected, and we’re going to a meaningful bowl game … but we’re not going there to lose.”