– They didn’t want to leave the field. Not after a win that felt defining in nature and a season best described as special. So they lingered long after the game had ended to celebrate and enjoy one final moment together.

Especially the seniors. They probably would have camped out all night at Raymond James Stadium if allowed. They have experienced so much turmoil and personal challenges the past five years that their elation was something to savor. As one of them noted afterward, “mission accomplished.” Indeed.

The perception of Gophers football changed in 2019. The first day of a new year validated the program’s rise to relevancy.

VideoVideo (02:16): P.J. Fleck spoke to the media after the Gophers' 31-24 victory.

A commanding 31-24 win over Auburn in the Outback Bowl served as an exclamation point on an 11-win season and sent notice that P.J. Fleck’s program can compete with college football’s big boys.

“If you want to be a blue blood,” Fleck said, “you’ve got to beat blue bloods.”

The Gophers didn’t just beat the Tigers, they throttled them statistically and in coaching acumen, leaving no doubt which team was superior. The manner in which the Gophers took the fight to their opponent will reverberate nationally because Auburn’s résumé included a win over Alabama and a three-point loss at LSU, along with one of the nation’s stingiest defenses.

This win will get people’s attention. Eleven wins with a dominating performance against a highly regarded SEC team should remove any remaining skepticism about the Gophers’ soft schedule. They are legit, plain and simple. And they will begin next season as a Top 15 team.

“We’re doing everything we possibly can to make this a championship program,” Fleck said. “We want to change people’s thoughts, ideas and mindset. This is one game, one win. [But] it shows where we can go. It shows what we’re capable of doing, but it doesn’t guarantee anything. You have to go earn it every single day.”

They certainly earned it Wednesday as 6 ½-point underdogs. One play encapsulated their performance in both approach and execution.

Leading 31-24, the Gophers faced a fourth-and-1 at the Auburn 41 with less than four minutes remaining. It was the kind of critical decision that leaves coaches ripe for second-guessing. Fleck called timeout to consider his options.

He went for the jugular.

Fleck not only went for it, but he signed off on a pass play called by interim offensive coordinator Matt Simon.

Tanner Morgan faked a handoff and had a defender immediately in his face. But he managed to loft a pass to tight end Bryce Witham, who made a one-handed grab while pirouetting for an 11-yard gain.

Auburn never got the ball back as the Gophers milked the rest of the clock.

“We came here to win the football game,” Fleck said in a quiet moment outside the interview room. “That was the whole mindset. We got in the huddle and said, ‘Guys, we’re going to go win the game.’ That’s all they wanted. Players said let’s go win the game.”

Fleck rose to the moment. He coached aggressively, which is exactly what you hoped to see with everything at stake.

His players never flinched either. They responded like a mature, tough-minded group after mistakes or any time momentum felt like it could shift to Auburn’s favor. The Gophers seemed in complete control even with the score close.

They outgained Auburn 494 to 232 in total yards and won the time of possession statistic by 15 minutes, which is almost unfathomable. They battered the Tigers physically with a balanced offense and a swarming defense.

“They outplayed us and outcoached us,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “They deserved to win.”

When it was over, the Gophers gathered in the end zone to take pictures and celebrate with a large contingent of fans who made the trip south. A historic season ended on the highest note and nobody wanted to leave the party.

“This is just the beginning,” senior defensive end Carter Coughlin said. “The program is definitely on the up and up, but this was the catalyst. Minnesota is going to be a force to be reckoned with in the future.”

Building a program is a step-by-step proposition, but this season served as a gigantic leap. There is a new standard for Gophers football. People will look at them differently now. They earned this. All of it.