The Gophers have possession of a prized water jug. They’re refreshed physically and mentally from a bye week. They’ve heard nothing but compliments and attaboys since returning from Michigan.
By all accounts, Gophers football enjoyed a glorious week, but now it’s back to business and everything about this team and this season comes down to two little words:
We’ve seen this movie before, right? Big win, lots of optimism, bandwagon starts to fill up and … splat.
The clock strikes midnight and another Gophers season turns into a pumpkin.
Will this team be different?
That’s the challenge facing Jerry Kill and his players right now. Actually, let’s not call it a challenge. This is their opportunity. That’s a more appropriate word.
The Gophers can make a statement starting Saturday. They can show their maturity as a program. They have an opportunity to use their emphatic victory at Michigan as a springboard to something greater.
That victory lap around the Big House merely represents a starting point. Their season will be defined by what happens next, the encore.
The Gophers host a Northwestern team that has righted itself after a rocky start and opened Big Ten play with victories against Penn State and Wisconsin. The Wildcats look formidable, but the Gophers are at home and favored.
This is a game they should win, if they want to be viewed in a different context.
Purdue and Illinois come next on the schedule. No reason the Gophers shouldn’t be favored in those games, too.
That sets up the November grind of Iowa, Ohio State, Nebraska and Wisconsin.
See the opportunity awaiting them? Here’s their chance to build momentum, create more buzz, give casual fans in this market reason to invest and become engaged before hitting that crucial final stretch.
That’s why Saturday’s game feels so important. That admittedly sounds strange, since it’s only their second conference game. But the Gophers have a chance to position themselves to become relevant in November.
A loss sometime in the next three games and the air will come rushing out like a deflated balloon.
It’s good that expectations have changed. A four-game winning streak in the Big Ten last season was considered a pleasant surprise. Now anything less than a 4-0 start in conference will be viewed as a letdown.
The Gophers struck the right tone in their message this week. The mood inside their complex felt business as usual. They didn’t dwell on Michigan or act as if they’ve accomplished anything extraordinary.
“The next day was fun, but after that, it’s over,’ ” tight end Maxx Williams said. “Cool, you won a game. In the big picture, that’s just one game toward our mission.”
The bye week fell on a perfect Saturday for them. Players scattered to watch games as fans, and college football delivered a smorgasbord of upsets and pace-the-floor finishes.
Five of the top eight teams nationally lost. In all, 11 ranked teams stumbled. The unpredictability and craziness of the day resonated with players.
“It was really cool to watch that,” center Tommy Olson said. “[College football] is wide open.”
That certainly applies to the Big Ten West Division. Who’s even the favorite at this point?
Nebraska and Wisconsin have flaws. Iowa, too. Northwestern? We need to see a lot more before pushing our chips in on the Wildcats.
Not one team looks invincible or far superior to the rest of the pack on that side. The division winner realistically could finish with two conference losses. An opportunity exists for the Gophers to jump into that race and make a crowded field of contenders even more of a logjam.
The Gophers began the season No. 10 in ESPN’s Big Ten power rankings. They moved up to No. 4 this week. Polls provide little value except to reveal a perception about a team.
The Gophers have teased us before, of course, which is why hardened followers of this program need more evidence than one thrashing of a Michigan team in disarray.
The Gophers also have their areas of concern, but Kill has created a blueprint that works for them. David Cobb ranks sixth nationally in rushing at 144 yards per game. Their defense is tied for sixth among FBS schools in takeaways with 15. They’re allowing only 19 points per game.
“I think we know internally how good we are and how good we can be,” Williams said.
Here’s their opportunity to show everyone else.