MINNEAPOLIS - PJ Fleck and the University of Minnesota football team made history yet again on Saturday.
The Gophers delivered in the biggest moment of the season yet, on national television in front of a sellout crowd of more than 51,000 fans at TCF Bank Stadium. It was Minnesota’s biggest home game since a catastrophic loss to Michigan in 2003 in the Metrodome.
But there was no letdown Saturday. Jordan Howden’s interception in the end zone, Sean Clifford’s third of the day, sealed a 31-26 Gophers victory. Tanner Morgan continued his outstanding season, going 18-of-20 for 339 yards and three touchdowns against a top-10 Penn State defense. The Nittany Lions came in allowing one touchdown pass all season. Morgan threw three touchdowns in the first half.
Morgan is in elite company when it comes to passing efficiency. He's currently behind only Oklahoma's Jalen Hurts, Alabama's Tua Tagovailoa and LSU's Joe Burrow, all three quarterbacks who are in the Heisman Trophy conversation. He was named the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week on Monday. His two favorite receivers, Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman, have a combined 88 catches for 1,577 yards and 15 touchdowns.
For the first time since 1904, the Gophers are 9-0. For the first time since 1961, they’re 6-0 to start the Big Ten season.
We can legitimately start the “Gophers in the College Football Playoff” conversation. The new rankings come out Tuesday night, and Minnesota will likely be somewhere between No. 6 and No. 9. They should be in the top-10, after beating the No. 4-ranked Nittany Lions. They moved up to No. 7 in the Associated Press and USA Today weekly polls, released Sunday. That’s the highest they’ve been ranked since 1962.
So what now?
For starters, the Gophers travel to Iowa City on Saturday to face the Hawkeyes. Iowa is coming off a 24-22 loss to Wisconsin, who remains two games behind the Gophers in the Big Ten West. It is conceivable that Minnesota could clinch a division title on Saturday, cementing its spot in the Big Ten championship game.
If the Gophers beat Iowa in the battle for Floyd of Rosedale, and Nebraska finds a way to beat Wisconsin, Minnesota wins the Big Ten West. Take a second to wrap your head around that. If Wisconsin and Minnesota both win, the Gophers could wrap up the division title in two weeks with a win Northwestern.
In that event, the talk about the Gophers in the College Football Playoff gets a lot more serious. They would likely be ranked in the top four with games at Northwestern, against Wisconsin and the Big Ten title game left on the schedule.
It also sets up the very real chance for the Gophers to be selected for the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. That would happen in the event they get to the Big Ten title game, face current Big Ten East leader Ohio State and lose. The Buckeyes, currently the No. 1-ranked team in the College Football Playoff, would advance to the national semfinals if they win the Big Ten title.
That's what made Saturday's win over Penn State so huge for the Gophers. It was an unofficial play-in game for the Rose Bowl, assuming Minnesota goes onto win the Big Ten West.
All that said, the focus this week for the Gophers won’t change, and it hasn’t all season. Sunday morning, they were 0-0 and onto the “Iowa Championship season.” Minnesota already has early motivation. Las Vegas odds-makers have them as 3-point underdogs at Kinnick Stadium, a place they haven't won at since 1999. Fleck has a knack for creating a lot of "firsts" with the Gophers this season after memorable wins. Saturday was no different, it was their first home win over a top-five team since 1977.
The bottom line for Gophers fans? They passed their first test of meaningful November football with flying colors, even if it got a little uncomfortable at the end. Buckle up, this season is about to get a lot more interesting and exciting.