The Gophers emerged changed from two weeks without football.
Not necessarily on the field, where any developments will show in Saturday's game at Nebraska, but in attitude. Day after day without practice while the team tried to control a COVID-19 outbreak that peaked at 49 cases could have mentally drained the already rundown Gophers.
At 2-3, having canceled two big games against rival Wisconsin and West-leading Northwestern, and with just two games left on the schedule, the Gophers could have resurfaced lacking any semblance of motivation.
Instead, they preach reinvigoration.
"When we were away from the building, it really gave us perspective, like, 'Wow, we're not playing football. This hurts,' " Gophers linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin said. "Maybe the Rose Bowl or some of the goals that we had planned on before the season are out of reach at the moment. That doesn't dictate our behavior."
This recent break reminded Sori-Marin and other players of why they play the game: because they love it. That became especially poignant seeing 23 teammates recently test positive and potentially have their seasons ended because of the Big Ten's 21-day sit-out policy. In a year where football has been taken away and given back and taken again, any chance to play together is a moment to relish.
Regardless of the obstacles. And for the Gophers, there are many.
Their best-case scenario is to defeat Nebraska and whatever opponent the Big Ten gives them next week, maybe Wisconsin. That would make Minnesota 4-3, still a far fall from last year's 11-2 season, capped with a New Year's Day bowl after falling just short of the Big Ten Championship Game and Rose Bowl.
Coach P.J. Fleck said the Gophers will be without more than 20 players from just COVID-19 alone against Nebraska, plus injuries and star receiver Rashod Bateman's opt-out.
While Big Ten-leading rusher Mohamed Ibrahim will attempt to literally carry the team with his 163-yards-per-game average, quarterback Tanner Morgan and new No. 1 receiver Chris Autman-Bell will try to right a passing game that only barely found a rhythm in the most recent game, Nov. 20 against Purdue.
The Gophers' conference-worst defense, though, which allows an average of 456 yards per game, likely won't help the offense in maintaining any lead.
Nebraska is a double-digit favorite against the Gophers, despite being 2-4 itself. In fact, 10 of 14 Big Ten teams have two wins. CBS Sports senior writer and bowl prognosticator Jerry Palm said with about a quarter of all bowl games canceled because of the pandemic, including several Big Ten destinations, and no eligibility standards this year, it's possible some of those two-win teams have a chance at a postseason.
Palm said teams will probably need four wins to reach a bowl game.
If the Gophers could do that at 4-3, they could sneak into one of the lowest-tier bowls, such as the Dec. 26 Guaranteed Rate Bowl in Phoenix that kicks at 9:15 p.m. Central time.
Palm currently has Ohio State in the Rose Bowl for the College Football Playoff, with Indiana in the Fiesta Bowl, Maryland in the Outback Bowl, Northwestern in the Citrus Bowl, Iowa in the Music City Bowl, Penn State in the Duke's Mayo Bowl and Wisconsin in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl.
The Guaranteed Rate Bowl would be a quick turnaround from the Gophers' Dec. 19 season finale, making this bowl experience feel a lot more like any other road game. No week of fun activities and fan events leading up to the game.
The Gophers — as well as individual players — could also potentially choose to opt out entirely, as Boston College recently did: The school's athletic director said giving the team a chance to go home for the holidays and see their families after a tough season ranked higher than playing another game.
"The postseason just seems to mean a lot less this year, outside of the big games," Palm said.
Chance for the Axe?
Going from the Outback Bowl to the Guaranteed Rate Bowl might not be a thrilling prospect. But even without an exciting postseason, the Gophers are still clinging to one worthwhile end to the season.
The conference planned the Dec. 19 game as an East-West matchup based on the standings. Right now, that could have the Gophers rematching a loss from their season opener against Michigan. But the Gophers have made it clear they would much rather reschedule the canceled Wisconsin game to keep a 130-year rivalry going.
Per a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel report, that could come to fruition. Badgers athletic director Barry Alvarez said Friday the conference will release the matchups Sunday, with Wisconsin's game likely at Camp Randall.
"We love that Axe game. When it got canceled, we were all kind of hurt because we were looking forward to it," Ibrahim said. "The chance that it might come back gives us hope."
But should even that not come to fruition, the Gophers still have one overarching reason to keep registering on the "care-meter," as Fleck called it. He said he's talked to his player about realizing the effort put in now, even in a season with no trophy in sight and coronavirus anxiety looming, will matter in the future.
That future could be in 2021, when the pandemic has hopefully eased enough to allow for a complete offseason and full schedule.
"I see a team right now that is so excited to be back out together, and I mean that," offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr. said. "When we were back out on that practice field, I really believe that our last three, four practices … they've been the most joyful but also the most physical practices, and that's really exciting.
"That shows a lot about the trajectory of this program for these next couple of weeks, which are the most important part of it, but also for the next couple of years and beyond."