Lone Star State redo: Gophers headed back to Texas Bowl
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After their first eight-win regular season in a decade, the Minnesota Gophers were holding out hope that more desirable bowl selection committees would take notice.
It turned out not to be enough.
The Gophers (8-4) are headed back to the Texas Bowl in Houston (Dec. 27, 5 p.m.) for the second straight season, where they will face Syracuse. It will be Minnesota's chance to avenge its last-minute loss to Texas Tech in the 2012 edition of the bowl.
In Jerry Kill's third year at the helm, the Gophers showed obvious signs of a program on the rise. They notched their best Big Ten record since 2005 with a 4-4 campaign. But hard-to-swallow losses to Wisconsin and Michigan State in their final two games ended up hurting Minnesota's postseason placement.
However, when news of their destination was announced Sunday night, Kill wasn't harnessing any feelings about being slighted.
"I've been in this long enough, you can't control any of that," Kill said, notably upbeat after coming from his team's end of the year banquet. "Our control is getting nine wins and winning a bowl game. Whoever gives us the opportunity to do that, we're excited about it. We need to do our job."
Although they shared identical records with Iowa and Nebraska, and were one win above Michigan (7-5, 3-5 in Big Ten), the Gophers were passed up in part due to bowl committees seeking a more recognized brand and higher ticket sales potential.
As Kill made obvious, the Gophers aren't dwelling on what was ultimately out of their control. Regardless of opponent, location or the game's prestige, the focus has shifted simply to winning a bowl game - something Minnesota hasn't done so since the 2004 Music City Bowl in a 20-16 win over Alabama.
The "U" players reflected their head coach's positive take, but view the game as a chance to send a reminder of where the program appears to be headed.
"We can go into this game with a chip on our shoulder and make sure people know that for next year that this team is to be taken seriously," senior defensive back Brock Vereen said.
Usually reserved as a Big Ten-Big 12 match-up, the Texas Bowl was forced to look elsewhere after the Big 12 ended up with only six eligible teams, two of which landed BCS bids (Baylor and Oklahoma).
As a result, Syracuse became the candidate out a limited pool of teams searching for an at-large spot.
Under first year head coach Scott Shafer, Syracuse (6-6, 4-4 in the ACC) narrowly achieved bowl eligibility, reaching the required six-win threshold thanks to a touchdown pass with six seconds remaining to stun Boston College in its season-finale.
This year's Texas Bowl ends up being a rematch of the Gophers' 17-10 defeat of the Orange at TCF Bank Stadium last season.
Minnesota's return trip to Houston marks the third time in a nine-year span that it has been in the same bowl in back to back years (Music City Bowl - 2004, 2005; Insight Bowl - 2008, 2009).
The goal for the Gophers is cut and dry: Get to nine wins on the year. Minnesota has done that only once in the modern era (10 wins in 2003 under Glen Mason). Reaching that milestone would match the Gophers' combined win total from its previous two seasons, a testament of forward progress.
"The bottom line is that we have to go finish the job. We really do," Kill said.
Vereen reiterated the Gophers aren't just happy to make a bowl game this time around.
"It's all about the ninth win," Vereen said. "That's huge for the program. It's no time to be selfish, 'we should have done this, we should have done that.' It's about getting that ninth win."