'We don't suck': Gophers changing national perception with 10-win season, bid to Outback Bowl

P.J. Fleck will do whatever he can, whenever he can to promote the University of Minnesota and his football program.

He made an impassioned three-minute speech after the Gophers pounded Maryland 52-10 to get ESPN’s College GameDay to come to Minneapolis, with a game against then No. 5-ranked Penn State on the horizon. The Gophers garnered more national attention after they beat the Nittany Lions 31-26.

Though it wasn’t the way it was drawn up, College GameDay did make the trek to Dinkytown when the Gophers hosted rival Wisconsin for Paul Bunyan’s Axe, and the Big Ten West title. Fleck is relentless in his approach, but he may not have to work as hard at the promoting in the near future. The No. 18-ranked Gophers learned on Sunday they’re headed to the Outback Bowl in Tampa, Fla., to face No. 12-ranked Auburn.

After the Gophers lost to Wisconsin, Fleck gave his players the week off so his coaching staff could hit the road recruiting. His work is being noticed across the nation. When he goes into recruits’ living rooms in Florida, Texas, Louisiana, you name it, they know who the Gophers are and what “Row the Boat” is.

From there it’s a matter of getting the next high-level player to come see Minneapolis. The Gophers had nine of their 12 regular season games on national television this year.

“Our brand is spreading at a rapid rate nationally. I think that’s healthy,” Fleck said. “Everybody knows, especially outside the state of Minnesota. That’s what this is all about.”

The Gophers (10-2) went back to work on Sunday, and during their first practice back, learned that they were headed to Florida and will face Auburn. No disrespect to Georgia Tech, but it’s quite the leap for the program after playing in the Quick Lane Bowl last year the day after Christmas.

They get a New Year’s Day bowl game in Florida against a top-tier SEC team.

“Now you’re playing one of the top 12 teams in the country in Auburn, you know what they bring to the table in one of the best bowl games you can possibly go to that’s not a New Year’s Six bowl. I think that level changes and the expectation changes and the level of competition changes, and I think that’s very healthy for your program,” Fleck said.

The players are very aware of how important the Outback Bowl is for the program. It’s their incentive for winning 10 regular season games for the first time in 115 years. It’s their reward for seven Big Ten wins for the first time in program history.

The Gophers had nine players earn All-Big Ten honors. They had the top two receivers in the Big Ten in Rashod Bateman and Tyler Johnson, who combined for nearly 2,300 receiving yards and 22 touchdowns. Bateman earned the award for the best receiver in the league. Tanner Morgan, who passed for 2,975 yards and 28 touchdowns, earned Second Team All-Big Ten honors.

They’re going to face an Auburn team that beat Alabama 48-45 in its regular season finale to knock the Crimson Tide out of the College Football Playoff. It’s Minnesota’s first New Year’s Day bowl game since the Gophers lost to Missouri in the Citrus Bowl in 2015 under Jerry Kill.

“It’s huge, it shows that our program is continuing to take the next right step. That’s what we have to continue to do, and I’m very proud of this team from where we’ve come since January to now. It shows the work guys have done since January until now,” Morgan said.

A lot of things change for a program that wins 10 games for the first time in 115 years. They get more time on national TV, more fans in the stands and thousands in the Twin Cities started caring about Gopher football again. TCF Bank Stadium was sold out for both the win over Penn State and the loss to Wisconsin.

They may not have beaten their two biggest rivals this season, but 10 wins is a tangible sign that Fleck has things headed in the right direction. He had to sell his current senior class on that vision when he was first hired in 2017.

“That was our goal when we all came in, the senior class that came in here, our goal was to change the perception and change how everybody looked at this university holistically. The fact that we have guys with NFL potential and we have scouts coming in and looking at different guys like that, it just makes my heart melt,” senior defensive lineman Winston DeLattiboudere said. “I’m so happy that I got to play a role in making an impact on this university and set the tone and the standard for all the other guys who will be coming in and younger guys rising to the top.”

DeLattiboudere takes pride in the fact that he’s part of a team that accomplished as much as the Gophers did in 2019. But there’s still one more game left, and one more opportunity for the seniors to prove how far the program has come since the day they stepped foot on campus.

Gone, they hope, are the days of 5-win seasons, or having to beat your biggest rival to earn bowl eligibility in the last game of the season, which is how last year ended. They finished this year one win away from likely locking up a trip to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.

It’s up to the players coming back next year to keep that trajectory pointing up. It won’t be easy, the Gophers won’t be sneaking up on anybody next year.

“We don’t suck. That’s what happens when the expectations are so high,” DeLattiboudere said.