A procession of cars stretched as far as the eye could see, waiting in line for tailgate lots to open, one group arriving 14 hours before kickoff.

Dinkytown came alive that day in early September. The Gophers kicked off their season against second-ranked TCU in the most anticipated college football opener this town has witnessed in decades.

The excitement of the program’s first New Year’s Day bowl game in a half-century flowed into a new season.

The mood on campus matched the occasion. Festive, loud, full of optimism. Felt like a real big-game atmosphere, an experience found in college football hotbeds.

That was three months ago. Feels like three years ago.

Draw a line from then to now and what do you see? A stock market chart of volatility. It’s hard to make sense of this season.

Or better yet, hard to define it, other than to call it a screwball season of the highest order.

Rare is the season in which losses feel more encouraging than wins. Fans celebrated moral victories in Big Ten with more enthusiasm than actual victories over supposed nonconference cupcakes.

Bad wins, good losses, a boatload of injuries and the sudden, emotional retirement of head coach Jerry Kill, who will return to TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday to say farewell to the seniors.

So how do we categorize this season?

Depends partly on what takes place in the battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe. A year ago, the Gophers-Wisconsin rivalry game carried extra importance with the West Division title up for grabs.

The 125th meeting between the schools is more about optics.

If the Gophers lose a 12th consecutive game to Wisconsin, not only will the idea of this being a true rivalry seem like a farce, but their season won’t be viewed as anything but a major disappointment.

A 5-7 record and only two Big Ten wins can’t be spun any other way.

A victory would feel like a life preserver.

The parading of the Axe would allow players a moment of unbridled giddiness in a season that’s brought little cheer.

A victory also would make them bowl-eligible, though that distinction is secondary.

Once upon a time, bowl games stood as a reward for a good season. Now, they’re basically a guaranteed extra game, with 80 teams earning invitations, possibly even 5-7 teams.

Nobody has to apologize for participating in bowl games, but that doesn’t mean bowl trips after 6-6 seasons must be celebrated, either.

Bowl games are not the gold standard for excellence in college football.

I’ve reflected this week on how to frame this season. Mainly, how to characterize the entire season if the Gophers win their final two games.

This is not the scenario anyone envisioned that September day of the opener. The Gophers were a trendy preseason pick to win the Big Ten West, or at least be in the mix.

Adversity hit along the way, the narrative changed, and now they’re just hoping for a .500 finish.

Hardly feels like success, yet circumstances created obstacles and some young players emerged in prominent roles.

A university employee offered perhaps the best summation: A 6-6 record and the Axe might not qualify as a victory, but it would be a save.

They can salvage something from a messy season.

A year ago, the Gophers smashed both Iowa and Michigan and looked far superior in doing so. They lost to both teams this season. A blowout loss to a pedestrian Nebraska squad remains a head-scratcher.

This season has been a struggle from the start. The offense and quarterback Mitch Leidner looked wholly inept early. Then injuries piled up. Then Kill retired. Then they tossed aside a winnable game against Michigan (which had nothing to do with injuries, by the way).

Those still on the fence with this program probably threw their hands up in disgust. The eternal optimists earmarked positives as silver linings.

Leidner’s improvement removes doubt about whether he will return as the starting quarterback. At the depth of his struggles, I predicted a competition would take place this spring with freshman Demry Croft.

Leidner earned his job down the stretch. His development has been a bright spot.

This has been a long, hard season overall, though. A disappointing season, in many regards.

Winning the Axe would improve the perception, give them something to celebrate.

The division title isn’t at stake, but the Gophers need to salvage something from a season that once held so much promise.

 

Chip Scoggins chip.scoggins@startribune.com