It’s likely Saturday’s loss at Wisconsin didn’t have much impact on the Gophers’ bowl game destination.
Most pundits agreed prior to the 31-17 setback it was going to be either San Diego for their first ever appearance to the Holiday Bowl, or a return trip to Nashville for the Music City Bowl. The Maroon-and-Gold played in the 2002, 2004 and 2005 version of the game, putting it in a tie with the Insight Bowl (now Cactus Bowl) for most all-time appearances.
The Pinstripe or Foster Farms Bowl are both still a possibility, but only if something surprising occurs with Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin and Penn State. All four are expected to be in the College Football Playoff Selection Committee bowls.
5.) Holiday Bowl vs Utah (8-4)
San Diego is undoubtedly the best of the possible destination cities for the Gophers. California’s second-largest city has some of the best weather in America and would be the most exciting place for fans or alumni contemplating attendance.
The Holiday Bowl also offers the best exposure for the program compared to the other games. It’s in a primetime slot on ESPN on December 27 without any competition from other bowls. The program hasn’t played a bowl game in California since the 1962 Rose Bowl, which might help recruiting in the football hotbed too.
The Utes or Washington State (more on that below) are the most likely opponents in the game. Much like the Gophers, the Utes were painfully close to a special season, but instead ended with an 8-4 mark and a handful of missed opportunities. Utah’s resume has an impressive early-season win over Southern California, upset losses to Cal and Oregon, and two, one-possession losses to Pac 12 division champions Washington and Colorado.
Utah’s strengths are also similar to Minnesota’s, which could make for a fun matchup. The Utes possess a strong ground game led by senior Joe Williams, averaging around 210 yards per game. Their defense is also built on turnovers and getting to the quarterback. The Utes lead the Pac 12 in quarterback sacks with 40, as well as interceptions with 17. Senior defensive ends Pita Taumopenu and Hunter Dimick bring the heat with a combined 21.5 sacks.
4.) Music City vs Georgia (7-5)
Nashville isn’t the worst of destinations, but when you consider the Gophers have played there three times since 2002 and the Vikings opened their 2016 season in the Music City, the fan base’s excitement to travel there could be low. Where the Gophers land could depend on how hard Iowa lobbies to play in Nashville — a much closer destination to Iowa City, which also happens to be where Hawkeyes senior quarterback C.J. Beathard attended high school.
The Bulldogs and Tennessee are two possible opponents, and because of the Gophers roster breakdown, playing first-year coach Kirby Smart and Georgia contains some intrigue.
Seven players on the Gophers’ roster are Georgia natives and all seven have been starters at some point this season. Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks are the offensive headliners, while linebacker Jon Celestin and cornerback Jalen Myrick are two of the anchors of the defense’s back end. The other three — Donnell Greene, Vincent Calhoun and Duke McGhee — all play key roles on the team too, so you can bet there’d be a little extra motivation playing against the team representing their home state’s university.
Georgia has experienced an up-and-down season getting adjusted to Smart and his staff. They began the season with three-straight wins and looked poised to end the year in identical fashion, but surrendered 14 fourth-quarter points to rival Georgia Tech to lose 28-27 on Saturday.
3.) Foster Farms Bowl vs Stanford (9-3)
In terms of both destination and opponent, a matchup with Christian McCaffrey and the Cardinal in San Francisco is a long shot. A lot of dominoes would have to fall nationally and in both conferences for this to become reality, but wouldn’t it be fun to see what this Gophers defense could do against the future pro?
The junior was limited earlier this season with an undisclosed injury, but has since returned to last season’s Heisman runner-up pace. McCaffrey’s rushed for almost 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns during Stanford’s five-game winning streak and would probably be heading to New York City’s Downtown Athletic Club again if it weren’t for the injury.
Stanford would also provide an interesting challenge to the Gophers offense. The Cardinal rush defense has been inconsistent this season, benefiting lately from playing with a lead. Junior defensive lineman Solomon Thomas, could create problems for the Gophers offensive line. He was named an All-Pac 12 First Team selection.
The Cardinal has won three of four bowl games against the Big Ten since 2013, and fared relatively well against tough running games from Wisconsin, Michigan State and Iowa.
2.) Music City vs Arkansas (7-5)
This scenario would be a rematch of the 2002 Music City Bowl in which the Gophers were victorious 29-14, but the intrigue is with Minnesota’s opportunity to renew a rivalry with a former Wisconsin coach.
Bret Bielema and his 2-pt conversion card shocked the Badgers faithful by jumping to the Southeastern Conference after the 2012 season. Needless to say, the Bielema experience is not going as planned for the Hogs, who are just 25-25 overall under the fourth-year coach. After a respectable 5-3 campaign in the SEC West last season, Arkansas stumbled to a 3-5 conference record this fall.
The entire team has lacked consistency under Bielema, who was undefeated against the Gophers while at Wisconsin. They’ve alternated wins and losses since Week 4, and lost a 17-point halftime lead to Missouri in the season finale. Running back Rawleigh Williams III did lead the SEC with 1,326 yards this fall, but Bielema’s rushing offense slipped to No. 10 from No. 4 in the conference without Alex Collins.
Bielema is earning $4.1 million this season. He signed a friendly contract extension with the Razorbacks in 2015 with a buyout that would cost the university $15.4 million if he’s relieved of his duties before 2018. But this is the SEC and there’s always the chance a bowl-game loss to Minnesota be the catalyst for the former Wisconsin coach’s firing.
How about that for an interesting subplot?
1.) Holiday Bowl vs Washington State (8-4)
December 2016 is the 10th anniversary of the infamous Insight Bowl, where Mike Leach’s Texas Tech squad rallied from a 38-7 third-quarter deficit to stun the Gophers and Glen Mason 44-41 in overtime. That collapse, a bowl-game record which was equaled by Oregon in last year’s Alamo Bowl, put in motion the sequence of events leading to Mason’s firing and the hiring of Tim Brewster.
After Brewster was fired in 2010, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported Leach was interested the Gophers’ coaching vacancy. Leach never interviewed for the position, though, and stayed out of coaching for of two seasons (2010, 2011) until surfacing in the Palouse at the beginning of 2012.
The 55-year old coach, in his fifth season at Washington State, has the program going to its third bowl game during his tenure. He was the Pac 12 Co-Coach of the Year last season, when the team improved to 9-4 overall and 6-3 in conference play, which was the Cougars best record in more than a decade.
The Cougars finished second to Washington in the Pac 12 North this season after losing to the rival Huskies 45-17 in the Apple Cup last weekend. They’re among the NCAA leaders in scoring offense (40. 3/game) and passing yards per game (370.8/game), led by junior quarterback Luke Falk.
Falk is flawlessly executing Leach’s Air Raid offense in his second full season as a starter and would be an interesting matchup for the Gophers defense. The former walk-on has thrown for more than 4,000 yards and 37 touchdowns, which is tied for No. 3 in the FBS in both categories. His favorite target is senior Gabe Marks, who’s caught 85 passes for 867 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Could the Gophers defense slow down the Cougars and earn a sliver of revenge for the program from 2006? Hopefully we will find out.