MINNEAPOLIS – The Gophers entered the season with high expectations on the field. Many outside the program pegged them as a candidate to win nine games and make a run at the Big Ten West for the first time in program history.
After a far from impressive run through a nonconference slate filled with mediocre opponents, there was plenty of reason to doubt. They found themselves trailing in the fourth quarter against FCS opponent South Dakota State, needing a miracle comeback just to even force overtime against a below average Fresno State squad, before topping that with a go-ahead touchdown with 13 seconds left against a Georgia Southern team that had lost 55-3 to Louisiana State two weeks before. There was hardly reason to think that this team could get through the Big Ten schedule and make any real noise, let alone be special.
Sure, the Gophers looked better as the boat rowed through an easy Big Ten slate that featured nothing but the bottom feeders of the West. They got through Purdue before they embarrassed Illinois, Nebraska, Rutgers, and Maryland. None of those teams stood a chance against Minnesota. It was easy to think that those games were won not because the Gophers were legitimately good, but rather because the rest of those programs are a combined 18-29 on the season, and only Illinois is even .500 in Big Ten play.
Thinking that the Gophers entered Saturday’s game against Penn State at 8-0 was more because they found a way to beat bad teams, rather than being a good team themselves, was a little pessimistic, but also defendable. The College Football Playoff committee certainly thought so, having the Gophers ranked at No. 17. Despite being unbeaten they were behind multiple two-loss teams.
I was one of those people. I watched this team struggle with a weak nonconference schedule and passed them off as fraudulent. They beat Purdue and Illinois, but those teams stunk. The Nebraska win was an impressive display of dominance, but the Huskers are all bark and no bite. As for Maryland and Rutgers, well, they’re Maryland and Rutgers.
People really think the Gophers can win the Big Ten West???
— Danny Cunningham (@RealDCunningham) September 14, 2019
When I tweeted that out after the win against Georgia Southern, I was not only pessimistic about what this team could be, but I truly believed it. I felt that this was a mirage of sorts. That TCF Bank Stadium was just a place filled with smoke and mirrors where inferior opponents couldn’t figure out themselves, let alone another team.
I’ve been proven wrong. This team is for real. They’re not the fraudulent unbeaten with a weak schedule I thought they were. They validated that on Saturday afternoon with the 31-26 win against previously unbeaten and No. 4 Penn State.
This type of win is what it took for me – and others – to buy into what this team is capable of. Finding a way to win the Big Ten as a whole still looks to be a tall task, the Gophers right now look like they are no worse than the second-best team in this conference, behind only the team most believe to be the best in the country, Ohio State.
If the Gophers find themselves facing the Buckeyes down the line in Indianapolis, a different conversation would need to be had, but as for right now, there’s no reason to think that Minnesota can’t finish the regular season 12-0, Big Ten West Champions, and at worst setting a date with a Pac-12 team out in Pasadena for the first time in a few generations.
The win against Penn State made a believer out of me, now it’s up to this team to not let the best opportunity that this program has had in sometime slip away. There were always three games that were going to define this season for the Gophers. Beating Penn State was the toughest task of the three, but wining at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa for the first time since 1999 would only further the reason for believing in this team, and give fans more ammunition to keep dreaming about what could be. Beat Wisconsin the final week of the regular season to keep the Axe for consecutive seasons for the first time since 1993 and 1994, well, then the dream becomes real.
This team might just be special, and if you haven’t thought so yet, it finally is OK to believe.