P.J. Fleck talks about the Gophers as a national brand. That would’ve been hard to dispute had Minnesota dispatched Wisconsin at TCF Bank Stadium, as many predicted the Gophers would do, on Saturday.
But they didn’t. Not even close.
It could have been the day the Gophers football program officially “arrived,” a victory over their fiercest rival for a berth in its first Big Ten Championship game. That, for all intents and purposes, would be a College Football Playoff play-in.
At that point, the worst the Gophers could have done was the Rose Bowl.
But there will be no Big Ten championship game, no College Football Playoff bid nor a Rose Bowl berth.
Leading into Saturday, Fleck was careful to say that one game would not define the program, nor affect its trajectory. But it certainly affects how this year will be viewed. As great as this regular season was for Minnesota, it ended in missed opportunities.
The Gophers lost to what looked to be an inferior opponent in Iowa. But no matter, they just needed to win their final two games to achieve their grandest goals. They handled Northwestern to set up Saturday’s showcase, which even drew ESPN’s College GameDay show to campus for the first time.
It was suitable state for Minnesota’s coming out party, which it looked to be early when Tanner Morgan hit Rashod Bateman for a 51-yard touchdown and 7-0 lead on the Gophers’ opening drive.
That was the highlight.
The Gophers were primed to go up two scores on their second drive but facing a 4th-and-2 from the Wisconsin 35-yard-line, Fleck chose to punt rather than step on the accelerator. And everything changed.
The Badgers scored rolled from there, going up 38-10 late.
The Badgers’ offense started to roll behind star running back Jonathan Taylor, who routinely beat Gophers’ linebackers in the passing game. His long touchdown reception gave Wisconsin a 10-7 lead that Minnesota never seriously threatened.
The Gophers offense was flummoxed by the Badgers’ consistent pressure up front; the defense was baffled by the same misdirection that Iowa used to beat them in Iowa City.
The Gophers got out-coached.
This is the second time in six seasons these two rivals met in the regular-season finale with a Big Ten title game berth on the line. Wisconsin won both. Those are the types of losses that cut Gophers fans the deepest.
Still, no one suspects Minnesota will go another five years before getting another shot. The past two years suggest the Gophers are on an upward trajectory; Fleck will tell you as much.
“We’re doing everything we can to set a new expectation and a new standard and an expectation of what Minnesota Golden Gopher football looks like,” he said. “And a 10-2 regular season, we want that to look that way.”
Maybe this season will be looked upon as a massive building block on Minnesota’s path to national prominence. Perhaps the Gophers will play on similar stages on an annual basis. This could be a failure that inspires growth. If that’s the case, Saturday’s loss will be a footnote in Fleck’s tenure.
“That’s what I want people to understand: We can,” Fleck said. “I know we didn’t tonight, but that doesn’t mean we won’t forever.”
It’s hard to doubt him after this 10-win season. Those are rare.
“We’ve got our first,” Fleck said. “I say our first, because we’re going to have some more of these.”
That’s what you want a coach to say, but the truth is that’s no guarantee. Variables are everywhere in college football, from coaching movement to injuries to schedules to all the wonky endings to games that make you ask “What just happened?”
Everything aligned for Minnesota this season. They were healthy, their schedule was manageable, they had stability and pulled out one miraculous finish after another in the nonconference slate. But even that’s not a guaranteed recipe for success.
Even the great programs rarely get to the point where they’re just two wins away from a playoff appearance. When that will happen again is anyone’s guess. Future success is never promised, so anytime the chance to do something special slips through your fingers, the pain leaves a lasting mark.
That’s why this season will be remembered for what could’ve been as much as what was.
Unless it truly leads to something greater.