The Gophers played a poor Purdue team in the seventh game of the 2010 season and lost 28-17 in West Lafayette, Ind. This dropped the Gophers to 1-6 and Tim Brewster became the first University of Minnesota football coach to be fired in the middle of a season.
Jeff Horton became the interim coach and managed to conclude the 3-9 season with a two-game winning streak vs. Illinois and Iowa.
This did not exactly create optimism for the future, no matter what coach then-athletic director Joel Maturi came up with next.
The Big Ten was going to split into divisions, Legends and Leaders, in 2011. The Gophers would be in the Legends with Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska, Iowa and Northwestern. Also: Wisconsin was designated as the rival for a yearly crossover opponent.
Based on four-plus decades of tradition, I came up with this generous calculation: the Gophers would defeat Michigan and Nebraska once every 10 years, Michigan State and Wisconsin three times every 10 years, Iowa four times every 10 years and Northwestern six times every 10 years.
That would put the Gophers at 18-42 over a 10-year period — a poor starting point to escape Big Ten oblivion.
Jerry Kill was hired as coach for 2011 — the Gophers’ eighth head coach in 40 seasons. The Gophers were 2-6 in his first two Big Ten seasons, including 1-11 (beating Iowa) against the annual opponents.
On November 20, 2012, four days before the Gophers closed conference play with a 26-10 home loss to Michigan State, Maryland’s Board of Regents voted to become a member of the Big Ten. Rutgers did the same the next day.
Now that it was official, you figured: The Legend has to be Maryland, which had a national champion in 1953, and not Rutgers, which came with a 1978 appearance in the Garden State Bowl as a high point.
Maryland would be a nice gift. Minnesota could beat the Terps six out of 10, putting the Gophers up to 24-46 per decade against the annual opponents.
And then arrived the cheeriest news that Minnesota’s football hopes had received since the last Big Ten title (shared at 6-1 with Indiana and Purdue) in 1967.
On April 28, 2013, the Big Ten announced that the Leaders and Legends divisions were gone and no attempt would be made to balance the divisions based on the traditional strength of programs.
It would be strictly geography, with the Gophers joining Wisconsin, Illinois, Purdue, Northwestern, Iowa and Nebraska in the West.
First, I’ll admit that Wisconsin deserves credit for quite a run since 1993. The Badgers have been to six Rose Bowls since then (2012 deserves an asterisk). They also have a 10-game winning streak against the Gophers.
Maybe it’s my Murray Warmath vs. Milt Bruhn upbringing. Maybe it’s the Badgers’ insistence on using mediocre quarterbacks, unless they are one-year transfers from North Carolina State.
Whatever, I don’t buy the Badgers as one of the big boys to fear forevermore in the Big Ten.
The five programs I put in that category are Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska.
Right now, Penn State is rebounding from the Jerry Sandusky scandal, and Michigan is in a funk that will end as soon as it hires the right coach, and Nebraska isn’t all it should be because Bo Pelini is a bit wacked.
No matter. Over the next decade, those will be the Big Ten’s power programs:
The Buckeyes, Nittany Lions, Wolverines, Spartans and Cornhuskers.
The Gophers are only certain to face one of those commodities, the Cornhuskers, on an annual basis.
Kirk Ferentz’s program at Iowa is tired. Wisconsin might have the wrong coach in Gary Andersen. And you look at the Gophers’ annual opponents in the Big Ten West and see new math:
Even if the one victory out of 10 vs. Nebraska is already out of the way, I put an improved Gophers program at four out of 10 vs. Wisconsin, five out of 10 vs. Iowa and seven out of 10 vs. Northwestern, Illinois and Purdue.
That’s 31-29 in annual games over a decade, which is much better than the 18-42 that seemed a reasonable estimate as the Gophers headed into the Legends division only four seasons back.
Geography is grand.