The Gophers’ convincing win at Wisconsin in the season finale had undeniable benefits for the program. Not only did it end a 14-game losing streak to the Badgers, but it also made Minnesota bowl-eligible.
With the Gophers set to play Georgia Tech on Wednesday in the Quick Lane Bowl, the question is this: Just how much of an advantage is it for a team to play a bowl game?
First take: Michael Rand
There isn’t a ton of great data on this, but let’s start here: The two most successful long-term Gophers coaches of the past, oh, 40 years are Glen Mason and Jerry Kill.
Mason reached a bowl game for the first time in his third season, starting a run of seven bowls in eight years. Kill reached a bowl in his second year, starting a run of five bowl appearances in a row (with Tracy Claeys taking over during that run).
While that’s not proof that bowl games give a team an edge, there does seem to be some momentum gained by getting there the first time.
Gophers beat writer Randy Johnson: As much as some people mock the Gophers’ bowl destination of Detroit — I had people actually offering me condolences that I have to go there — making a bowl was hugely important for P.J. Fleck and his program.
That’s simply because the Gophers are not one of the teams that didn’t make a bowl. Two consecutive years of no postseason would have been tough for many to stomach.
That said, the advantage of playing in the Quick Lane Bowl will depend on what the Gophers make of it. Bowls often are won by the team that wants to be there more. Georgia Tech, the Gophers’ opponent, had a couple of players complain about their bowl placement. We’ll see if that plays a role on Wednesday. It could be an area in which the Gophers have an edge.
Rand: In terms of the extra practices bowl teams are allowed, my sense is that they’re more important for next season than this one. Many coaches have talked about using bowl practices to give underclassmen and other seldom-used players a jump-start on competing for future jobs.
This seems strange to me, though: Extra practices are a reward for teams that make bowl games, but aren’t the teams that don’t qualify in even more need of practice?
Johnson: That’s college football in a nutshell, isn’t it? Teams that could use more work to improve don’t get the extra practices.
It’s much like the NFL draft vs. college recruiting. In the NFL, losing teams are rewarded with better draft picks. In college football, losing teams almost always end up with worse players in recruiting than national powers are able to attract. That makes turning around a program a tall task.
In the Gophers’ case, those extra practices should help because they’re still young, with eight freshmen on offense expected to start in the Quick Lane Bowl. How do you get better at football? By playing more football.
Rand: And here’s some additional hope for 2019: Mason’s Gophers went from five to eight wins in his third year; Kill’s Gophers jumped from six to eight; and Fleck kept his Western Michigan program steady at eight wins between Years 2 and 3 before jumping to 13 in Year 4. Seems like eight is the magic number.
Final word: Johnson
Eight wins in 2019 should be a realistic expectation with the talent the Gophers return, though the nonconference schedule of South Dakota State (10-3 and an FCS semifinalist), Fresno State (12-2 with a bowl win) and Georgia Southern (10-3 with a bowl win) might be more challenging than many expect.
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