TAMPA, Fla. – This bowl game feels different.
For Rashod Bateman, the Outback Bowl is bigger than the sophomore receiver’s only other comparison, last season’s Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit. Bateman said Wednesday’s New Year’s Day matchup with No. 12 Auburn is something the Gophers have earned a right to experience.
The Gophers accomplished 10 regular-season wins for the first time since 1905 and seven Big Ten victories for the first time in program history. They displayed a signature triumph by beating No. 5 Penn State. But Bateman, who hails from SEC country, knows that’s not enough to convince the college football world that the Gophers aren’t just a one-hit wonder.
“There’s a lot of people that still think we haven’t done anything,” Bateman said. “So going against a powerhouse like Auburn and playing our best, no matter the outcome, I think we still can continue to open a lot of eyes around the country.”
When the No. 18 Gophers look to upend the Tigers at Raymond James Stadium, they’re playing for respect. Vegas and the general public expect them to lose to by at least a touchdown to a team that has sharpened its skills against many of the top FBS teams and has one of the most formidable defenses in the country.
But what the Gophers could take from a statement win against Auburn is immeasurable. A top-15 final ranking would be nearly guaranteed, something that likely would follow them into preseason rankings next year. Suddenly, the Gophers would be a team to watch instead of one to forget.
“We are trying to establish ourselves as blue bloods as they are,” is how Gophers defensive tackle Micah Dew-Treadway characterized a potential win against a program that won the 2010 national title and finished runner-up to Florida State three years later.
Auburn senior cornerback Javaris Davis said the challenge of facing the Gophers is knowing how motivated they’ll be to pull an upset and trying to match that fervor. But the Tigers have their own points to prove. They don’t need the outside recognition. This is about personal pride.
SEC Defensive Player of the Year Derrick Brown said he doesn’t want Auburn to come off as the cliché favored team that took an out-of-conference foe lightly. He doesn’t want a repeat of what happened two years ago against UCF in the Peach Bowl, when Auburn was “lackadaisical” in a 34-27 loss.
Auburn wants a 10-win season and to not endure embarrassment in an important recruiting area.
“This is a very important game for us, not just this year, a chance to win 10 games with the schedule that we had for our seniors, but to give you momentum for the future,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “We think we’ve got a really, really bright future that we think we’ve got championships on the horizon. So this is a huge game for us.”
In that way, it seems Auburn has more at stake than the Gophers. It wouldn’t shock anyone if the Gophers lost. In fact, coach P.J. Fleck and quarterback Tanner Morgan have both said a bowl game performance has no real bearing on what happens the next season, minus a win just sending everyone into winter workouts in a good mood.
The result doesn’t matter as much as the performance. Fleck said as long as his team plays its best football of the year to end this season, that’s enough of a jumping-off point heading into his fourth season with the Gophers.
“A lot of you always ask me prior to the season, ‘Coach, what’s the amount of wins that you would consider a success?’ This season’s been successful,” Fleck said. “Not because of the 10 wins, [but] did we get everything out of our players? Do they have peace that they did everything they possibly could do to be the best they can be? … This group did. They’re successful, no matter what happens.”
But off the field, a win could enhance the Gophers’ wider perception even more. Minnesota fans sporting Gophers gear have swarmed Tampa, Fla., in advance of the game.
“I’m surprised at how many people who aren’t in Minnesota come up to me and talk about how we were the story of college football,” Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle said. “And how nice it was to have a new team that people are talking about. … I know we’ve had a lot of people [such as] Jim McVay from the Outback Bowl talk about how, ‘Minnesota is a team we wanted because they’ve caught everybody’s imagination and attention this year.’ ”
Bateman said even though the Gophers ultimately fell short of their goal to win the Big Ten West and move on to greater achievements like the Big Ten Championship Game and the Rose Bowl, he still considers what the Gophers have done in 2019 a success.
A win, or even a hard-fought loss, against Auburn would exceed expectations, something the Gophers have done a lot this year. But they aren’t focusing on how much there is to gain and how seemingly little there is to lose.
“To us, it’s just a phenomenal opportunity to play a great team, a really good team, and another chance to play football with this team,” Morgan said. “It’s our last chance we’ll get to play with this team.
“So you really cherish that.”