For third-year coach P.J. Fleck, more than just an 11-win season will be on the line when his 18th-ranked Gophers take on No. 12 Auburn in the Outback Bowl on Wednesday in Tampa's Raymond James Stadium. The 2020 Outback Bowl odds have Minnesota getting seven points vs. Auburn on New Year's Day.
Outback Bowl odds: Auburn (-7, 54 over/under) vs. Minnesota, New Year's Day at 1 p.m. ET (ESPN)
It's another span in the bridge Fleck is building to the Gophers' football past of over a half-century ago when it won its last national title in 1960.
“I think we're restoring the tradition of old,” Fleck said. “That's what's really important that we never forget here. 'Row the boat' is our culture. 'Ski-U-Mah' is our tradition. That's what we're restoring.
“When you have a tradition –18 Big Ten championships, seven national championships — it's fun to be that bridge. You can feel the excitement. People are really excited about the future of Minnesota for sure.”
Row The Boat is the “never give up” mantra Fleck brought with him to Minnesota from Western Michigan, where his program earned the Mid-American Conference's first berth in a New Year's Six game in his final season.
Ski-U-Mah is a traditional chant exclusive to Minnesota that allegedly goes back to the late 1800s when a Minnesota rugby player was watching canoe races and heard a Native-American cheer he interpreted — wrongly, as legend would have it — as a Dakota term for “victory.” It has been part of Gophers' lore ever since.
Whether they are just gimmicks or not, they served as a rallying cry for the the Gophers as they put themselves in the midst of the Big Ten race as late as mid-November before a four-point loss at Iowa followed by a 38-17 from spanking from Wisconsin in the regular-season finale left them short of their goal.
Nevertheless, a 10-2 finish earned the Gophers their second consecutive bowl bid and 21st overall ranking entering bowl season.
Fleck said he is “very excited” about the growth of his team, which has 10 wins for the first time since 1905 and seven Big Ten victories for the first time ever. Among their victims was a Penn State team that was ranked No. 5 in the country at the time, giving the Gophers their first victory over a Top 5 opponent since a win over then-No. 1 Michigan in 1977.
“It's a very mature football team in how they handle things,” said Fleck who is quite frankly almost always very excited. “It's led by our senior class and how they've been able to handle change over the years. This senior class has been through so much change. They've had things they've had to respond to.”
Nevertheless, the Outback Bowl odds have Minnesota a 7-point underdog against Auburn according to betting sites like FanDuel.
“We're talented, they're talented,” Fleck said. “It think it's going to be a a great matchup.”
The Tigers (9-3) fell out of contention in the Southeastern Conference West race with October losses at Florida and LSU and later lost to Georgia, but they finished the season with a 48-45 win over rival Alabama and have some incentive of their own.
“Our goal is to win 10 games and we’ve got an opportunity to do that,” coach Gus Malzahn said. “Our seniors are excited for it. We want to send those guys out with a bowl victory.”
The Tigers will pit a relentless ground game that that has rushed for an average of 211 yards an outing even though leading rusher JaTarvious Whitlow (739 yards) missed two contests to injury. They will be up against a Gophers' defense that will be missing one of its key players, linebacker Kamal Martin, who is prepping for the NFL draft but likely would not have been available any way after undergoing knee surgery.
Fleck is wary of what tweaks Malzahn may have in store after two weeks of practices.
“What makes him really special is that you can watch the tendencies during the season,” Fleck said, “but when coach Malzahn has three weeks to prepare for you, 80 percent of what you just saw doesn't exist. It's something else, and it's even better.”
Malzahn has respect for Minnesota's “completeness” as a team. The Gophers have a rare combination with a pair of 1,000-yard receivers in Rashod Bateman (1,170 yards) and Tyler Johnson (1,114) plus a 1,000-yard rusher in Rodney Smith (1,094).
Quarterback tanner Morgan has thrown for an average of 247.9 yards a game with 28 touchdowns against only 6 picks. But tight end Jake Paulsen (five starts in nine appearances) is out with a leg injury and Fleck said that right tackle Daniel Faaleleis (11 starts) is a game-time decision because of a knee injury.
“They're pretty unique from being a little bit different from what we're used to seeing,” Malzahn said. “When you look at them defensively, what they do they know their answers. They're really good. They play extremely hard. Offensively, they get the ball to their best players. They figure out ways to get them on one-on-one situations.”
Malzahn may have the key card in his favor with senior defensive tackle Derrick Brown (12.5 tackles for loss among 50 stops) leading a unit that gave up only 323.9 yards a game (115.5 rushing).
“He had a dominant season,” Malzahn said. “Not a good season, a dominant season.”