Ready for Big Ten college football? Gophers season kicks off in 30 days

EVANSTON, ILLINOIS - NOVEMBER 23: Head coach PJ. Fleck of the Minnesota Golden Gophers stands on the field during the game against the Northwestern Wildcats at Ryan Field on November 23, 2019 in Evanston, Illinois. (Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Imag ((Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images) / Getty Images)

The University of Minnesota football season kicks off in 30 days.

It’s feels weird to say that on Sept. 24, but amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the Gophers are happy that they’re even getting the chance to play football. That wasn’t the case until last Wednesday, when Big Ten presidents and chancellors voted unanimously to start the football season Oct. 24.

That reversed an 11-3 decision made in mid-August to postpone fall sports due to the uncertainty around COVID-19. But facing financial concerns across Big Ten athletic departments, getting access to rapid COVID-19 testing and putting strict protocols in place to keep student-athletes healthy and safe, football is back on. It also probably escalated conversations that the ACC, SEC and Big 12 have gone forward with games and had minimal issues.

The Gophers host Michigan Oct. 24 at TCF Bank Stadium to open an eight-game season. There won’t be any fans in the stands, just family of the players.

“We’re just happy that we’ve got a schedule out right now and we’ve got something to look forward to. We still have to prepare every day. That’s our standard, we always have to worry about right now,” running back Mohamed Ibrahim said.

It’s different than a normal season, but there hasn’t been anything normal about the sports landscape since March 11. Minnesota will get an eight-game season, then a ninth game against an East Division opponent who finishes in the same spot the Gophers do in the West.

If Minnesota wins its division, it’s an impromptu Big Ten title game. But there won’t be any asterisks on this season, not for P.J. Fleck.

“Of course it’s a real season. Any time you play college football, any time you play on Saturday, any type of practice, it’s real. When that schedule came out, it’s exciting because it’s a season and it’s real and we’re going to play it. Will it be different? You bet. Have any of us been through anything like this before as a coach or as a player? No, but that’s what makes it really exciting,” Fleck said.

Excitement around the Minnesota program is as high as it’s ever been. The Gophers finished 11-2 after beating Auburn in the Outback Bowl, their best record in 115 years. They finished the season No. 10 in the Associated Press Poll. They entered the season No. 19 in the AP preseason poll.

They’re getting a chance to build on that, something they weren’t sure would ever come.

“With being able to play football, our team has been really excited to be able to realize we got five weeks to go get ready for Oct. 24. We have to treat each day like it’s a game to get ready and get prepared,” quarterback Tanner Morgan said. “A couple weeks ago we didn’t know if we were going to play at all, so it’s definitely a blessing. It helps us to understand nothing is given, this is a privilege.”

After hosting Michigan, the Gophers travel to Maryland and Illinois before coming home to face Iowa in the Battle for Floyd of Rosedale. That competes the front half of the schedule. The last four games including hosting Purdue, traveling to Wisconsin for Paul Bunyan’s Axe, hosting Northwestern and hitting the road to face Nebraska.

There’s no bye weeks, meaning there’s pressure on the players to follow protocols, stay healthy and safe. If a player tests positive for COVID-19, they’re out for a minimum of 21 days. Fleck has reminders of being in a bubble all over the football complex. At the same time, it’s hard to ask college kids to stay quarantined when not at practice, working out or watching film.

Gophers’ athletes have done their part, for the most part. As of Sept. 1, out of 1,406 COVID-19 tests, just 43 were positive and it’s not known how many are football players.

For Morgan, it’s about accountability.

“What’s fun? Winning is fun, executing on offense, on defense is fun. Being loved in a culture is fun. There’s sacrifices we’re all going to have to make to be able to be successful this fall,” Morgan said. “Twenty one days is a long time if you test positive, that’s three weeks so every player knows what’s at stake. We have to be careful, we can’t put ourselves at risk for exposure and things like that.”

It’s different, but it’s football.