The 2019 Gophers football season began with a narrow victory over South Dakota State.

The Gophers won their three nondescript nonconference games by a total of 13 points.

They didn't beat a Big Ten team that would finish the season with a winning conference record until they upset Penn State, at home, on Nov. 19.

As convenient as it is to think of the Gophers' 2019 season as an unrelenting march toward historical excellence, in reality they looked shaky early and were difficult to evaluate until two late-season victories legitimized their record.

In that light, losing the 2020 season opener while missing a bunch of key players against a strong Michigan team does not have to be viewed as a disaster.

As in 2019, a soft Big Ten schedule could set the Gophers up to not only win big again but to accomplish something just as unprecedented as beating a ranked SEC team in a New Year's Day Bowl.

The Gophers still could become the preeminent sports team in the state of Minnesota.

Michigan beat the Gophers 49-24 on Saturday night at TCF Bank Stadium. The Gophers missed their departed defensive stars and two offensive linemen who did not play for a variety of reasons.

It was a lousy way to start the season, and in other years may have dimmed casual fan enthusiasm, but this is not a normal year.

Minnesota boasts the NFL, WNBA, NBA, NHL, MLB, MLS, NWHL. We have the Big Ten and the St. Paul Saints. We have quality prep sports, and a stunning array of pro and college venues.

One of the challenges for Gophers football has always been competition for the sports fan dollar and sports media attention.

Gophers football plays at the same time of year as the Vikings, the state's most popular team. Early in the Gophers' season, they compete with the Twins for market share, and if the Twins are good, baseball can dominate coverage in September and at least part of October.

By the time the Gophers are playing games with bowl implications, they usually are competing with the beginning of the NHL and NBA seasons, plus the beginning of Gophers basketball and hockey.

For Gophers die-hards, nothing matters more than the football team. For most casual Minnesota sports fans, Gophers football is an afterthought until the team proves itself worthy of watching.

This year, they may be the only team worth watching for months.

The Vikings are 1-5 and will become irrelevant until the draft if they lose to the Green Bay Packers on Nov. 1.

The Gophers' next four games are against Maryland, Illinois, Iowa and Purdue.

They could build another Big Ten winning streak leading into a game with conference title and national implications — Nov. 28 at Wisconsin.

The Gophers finish the regular season against Northwestern and Nebraska.

The Twins left the postseason after two uninspired games. They won't matter again until February unless they make a splash in free agency, which at the moment seems like a long shot.

The WNBA recently concluded its season. The NBA and NHL may not resume until December or January. The Gophers basketball and hockey teams could be good but won't play conference games anytime soon.

Gopher football has rarely if ever had this opportunity: to become the most important, or at least most relevant, team in Minnesota for their entire season.

"That loss could be the greatest thing that happened to us,'' Fleck said. "Because we have a lot to learn and a lot to work on.''

That would sound like nothing more than coach-speak if the Gophers hadn't improved dramatically during the 2019 season.

But they might not get to play another game in front of the "College GameDay" staff for a while.

Saturday, Vince Vaughn was the show's Minnesota-born guest picker.

When you think of Minnesota, you think of Vince Vaughn. Now how can someone synonymous with our state — someone known all over the world as Mr. Minneapolis — show his face after this?

Jim Souhan's podcast can be heard at On Twitter: @SouhanStrib. •