MINNEAPOLIS — Coach P.J. Fleck’s University of Minnesota team made a dramatic statement to the college football world last Saturday when the No. 13 ranked Golden Gophers upset No. 5 Penn State in Minneapolis. Minnesota’s 31-26 win over the Nittany Lions came in a game the Gophers controlled, and the outcome moved the program to heavyweight status among Power Five Conferences.
The 9-0 Gophers are now ranked No. 7 nationally in the latest Associated Press and Coaches polls. Minnesota’s ranking is the highest in the AP poll since November of 1962 when the Gophers were No. 5. With three games remaining on the regular season schedule, the school that has won nine consecutive games for the first time since 1904 now deserves that kind of respect.
For years the program that often didn’t seem to know how to spell R-e-s-p-e-c-t, now has earned it. Can we all spell C-r-e-d-i-b-i-l-i-t-y?
It will be interesting to see how far Minnesota advances in the College Football Playoff Rankings that come out Tuesday night. The Gophers are one of only five undefeated Power Five teams remaining in college football. Last week, Minnesota was ranked No. 17 in the CFP listings.
Fleck, the third-year coach who was doubted and mocked by the Minneapolis citizenry and media, has a team that is not only surprisingly undefeated but improving every week. Already among the favorites to win national coach of the year awards, Fleck could be the honoree if Minnesota can sweep its last three games. In Saturday’s game at least two Gophers added to their profiles for earning national honors after the season. Wide receiver Rashod Bateman was unstoppable, coming up with 203 yards in receptions, while Gopher safety Antoine Winfield Jr. had two timely interceptions and a team high 11 tackles. He was recognized Sunday as the Walter Camp FBS National Defensive Player of the Week.
The potential is there for Minnesota to win its first ever Big Ten West Division championship. The 6-0 Gophers are being chased by 4-2 Wisconsin and 3-3 Iowa, and maybe 4-3 upstart Illinois. Minnesota’s remaining regular season schedule is at Iowa next Saturday, then at Northwestern (0-7) and home versus Wisconsin.
Minnesota hasn’t defeated Iowa and Wisconsin in the same season since 1990. The Gophers haven’t won a game in Iowa City since 1999. Minnesota has won 11 consecutive games dating back to 2018 when the Fleckers defeated Wisconsin in the last regular season game and Georgia Tech in a bowl game, and on Nov. 30, the Gophers could defeat the Badgers in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1993-1994.
The list of implications that came out of Saturday’s mega win is long and includes the prospect of Minnesota advancing to the Big Ten title game next month and playing competitively against Ohio State, viewed as the best team in the country by those who put out the College Football Playoff Rankings. A 12-0 record going into Indianapolis to play the Buckeyes could put Minnesota into the driver’s seat for the program’s first Rose Bowl invite since 1962. That kind of success would be an eye-opener for impressionable high quality recruits around the country who are likely to think about grabbing an “oar” and heading to Minneapolis.
The most optimistic of fans — and some are probably still partying after Saturday’s program turning win — are chortling that the Gophers are contenders to earn their way to the four-team playoffs. In an improbable season, those in the Optimists Hall of Fame are thinking bigger than I am.
Make no mistake, though, the Gophers are likely to sustain success this season. They might lose a couple of games in a closing stretch against the top-25 Hawkeyes and Badgers. A string of unfortunate injuries to Minnesota’s best playmakers could spoil the fun in the games ahead, but so many good things are already in place with more coming.
The Gophers are headed to a credible, if not prestigious, bowl game — see you later Motown. Ticket sales will increase next year and should be jumping for the home finale to keep possession of Paul Bunyan’s Axe. Fleck’s getting some local love and learned Saturday he can have a happy football marriage in Minneapolis — an on-and-off bandwagon town. Athletic director Mark Coyle has already won his presentation to the university Board of Regents next month when he asks for formal approval of the coach’s new seven-year extension.
Donation checks should be on the upswing to the athletic department and the university. A Rose Bowl win will goose donations like years ago when bottom feeders Big Ten Wisconsin and Northwestern rose up and said, “Pasadena here we come.”
Are you listening T. Denny Sanford?
Hey, Lee Corso, you listen up too. Before Saturday’s game the confident Corso said this about Penn State on ESPN College GameDay: “They’re gonna sink that Minnesota boat.”
Nope. Saturday the Gophers bagged a Nittany Lion.
With decades of experience as a sports reporter and columnist covering professional and college sports, Twin Cities-based sports columnist David Shama not only shares his perspectives, but he also quotes many of Minnesota’s biggest newsmakers among players, coaches and owners.