Minnesota is 8-3 (5-3), clinching their third 8-win season in the last 4 years and second 5-win conference season in the same span. The Gopher have beaten the teams they were supposed to and lost close games to the teams we care most about beating.
We all felt great in 2013 after 8 wins, .500 in conference, 4-game winning streak in conference, wins over Penn State and Nebraska. We felt even better in 2014 with multiple trophies, another 8 win season, 5 conference wins, and a January 1st bowl. Last year was tough, but we survived an injury riddled year and the loss of our coach respectably. While non of our wins were great, we fought tough in close losses to Michigan, Iowa, and TCU and were bringing in a pretty good recruiting class.
This season was looked to as a chance for a #SpecialSeason. The cross-overs looked fairly easy while our division rivals looked to have tougher schedules and many question marks. We were bringing back a 5th year senior at QB, solid RBs, and a defense that had carried the team throughout the Kill/Claeys tenure.
Some closer than expected wins, backbreaking losses to rivals, and a much better than expected season for Wisconsin have soured many fans’ opinion on this season. Add the general sloppiness, lack of discipline, and slow recruiting and you make an already angsty fanbase worry.
In an effort to assuage fears (or back up concerns) I dove into the S&P+ numbers for the last 6 seasons, paying more attention to the last 4. CAVEAT: This season still has two more games, one against Wisconsin (currently 10th) and the bowl game (likely against 20-50th ranked team).
This is the only season of the last four to not have a loss to a team rated worse than 40th in S&P+. However, six of the wins have come against teams rated worse than 75th (out of 129). This is also the first season since 2013 where we haven’t lost to a team with a worse ranking.
A win this Saturday will drastically change everyone’s outlook on this season. We would finish with our best conference record since 1973 and knock Wisconsin out of a possible playoff bid. Lose on Saturday and it becomes a perfectly average 8-4 season.
But wait, our conference record is pretty good but it was all against bad teams. Why should we be excited by it? Great question. I also compiled records against top-50 teams over the last 6 seasons:
Through 11 games, Minnesota is having its best season against top-50 teams in the last 6 years. Again, the Wisconsin game will determine the success of this season. Aside from 2015, we have seen steady improvement in this category.
I think that a lot of our collective anxiety over this season stems from three main sources.
- We traded games with TCU, Michigan, and Ohio State for games with Penn State, Rutgers, and Maryland. We did not expect Penn State to have the season it is having and blew a game we had all but won. We were also returning a rSR QB and a coaching staff that showed some signs of progress at the end of a tough season.
- Iowa navigated a similarly soft schedule to a perfect regular season and a trip to the Rose Bowl. If Iowa could do it, why can’t we? Unfortunately, the Hawkeyes navigated theirs unscathed, while we have given away three potential wins.
- Wisconsin was supposed to fall back to Earth with a schedule including LSU, MSU, Michigan, and Ohio State. Instead, they are sitting just outside of the playoff and are the likely West Rep in Indy. Sure, LSU and MSU are not nearly as good as we thought they would be, but the Badger defense is phenomenal.
The back-to-back close losses to Penn State and Iowa sucked much of the enthusiasm out of the season as the next four were against the dregs of P5. A close loss to Nebraska and a comfortable win over Northwestern leave us with one game to make or break the year.
A win ends the streak, keeps Wisconsin out of Pasadena or even the College Football Playoffs, and could keep the out of Indy. A loss will just sour another 8 win season.
I think it is fair to look at this season as a missed opportunity. We were in all three of our losses, blowing second half leads in each. Poor tackling, coverage, and confusing play calling all played parts in the three losses. Flip all three and the Gophers have already clinched the West and are hoping to complete their own #SpecialSeason. However, we are just as close to 5-6 needing 4th quarter comebacks against Oregon State and Rutgers and off Colorado State, Purdue, and Northwestern.
A win makes this a great season for me. Maybe not the perfect season, but the Axe, 9 wins, 6 conference wins, a good bowl game, and keeping the Badgers out of Pasadena or the playoff would make up for the earlier losses. We would have beaten all of the teams we were supposed to (a first in the Kill/Claeys era) plus a marquee win over our most hated rival.
A close loss to the Badgers would be incredibly frustrating as all 4 losses would have been winnable, meaning we blew a golden opportunity. Yes, we would have beaten everyone we should have and only lost to better teams, but it would also be the first season without either a win the fanbase can get excited about since 2012. Even 2012 felt fine because of an unexpected bowl game.
A blow out loss would be depressing. While our floor has been raised, our ceiling would also appear to be 8 or 9 wins with not much of a shot at Indy. It may be too early to proclaim that, especially since Claeys is still molding the program into what he wants, but I'll feel a lot worse about our outlook.