Gophers coach PJ Fleck often emphasizes that he wants his players to grow “academically, athletically, socially and spiritually.”
While the athletic part of the equation hasn’t gone as well as the Gophers had hoped this season — they sit at 5-5 entering Saturday’s game at No. 2 Ohio State — the academic part has the potential to save the team from this coming bowl season.
The Gophers must defeat either the Buckeyes or Wisconsin in the Nov. 25 finale at Huntington Bank Stadium to secure a sixth win and the bowl appearance that goes along with it.
However, there is a side door that the Gophers could use to play in a bowl even if they drop their final two games of the regular season and finish 5-7.
If there are not enough teams with six or more wins to fill the 82 spots in the 41 bowl games, the five-win teams with the best multi-year academic progress scores (APRs) will be used to fill those spots. The Gophers followed that up in 2015 when they went 5-7, but advanced to the Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit and beat Central Michigan 21-14.
With two weeks left in the regular season, 58 teams have achieved six wins and secured a spot in the cup, leaving 24 spots to fill. There are 24 FBS teams with five wins, so expect the number of open spots to decrease over the next two weeks.
This year there is a twist in filling empty bowls. James Madison and Jacksonville State (Alabama) moved to the FBS from the FCS, but still have probationary status and cannot compete for their conference titles and automatic bowl bids. However, the NCAA has ruled that tryout teams like James Madison (10-0) and Jacksonville State (7-3) with six or more wins can fill spots before five-win teams are considered using multi-year APR scores .
The Gophers have a multi-year APR score of 992, which is tied for eighth with Air Force and Wake Forest among FBS schools. Five of the teams ahead of them or tied with them — Clemson, Alabama, Ole Miss, Ohio State and Air Force — have already reached bowl eligibility. Northwestern (5-5) and Wisconsin (5-5) are tied for first in APR at 996, and the Gophers-Wisconsin matchup guarantees that one of the two will have six wins and reach a bowl game.
If the Gophers fall to 5-7, there will likely need to be at least four open spots to get in. The first two will go to James Madison and Jacksonville State. If Northwestern loses to both Purdue and Illinois to finish 5-7, the Wildcats will be next in line. Cincinnati (3-7) ranks sixth in APR at 994, but needs to beat both West Virginia and Kansas to make it five wins.
A team to watch if the Gophers finish 5-7 is Wake Forest, which is 4-6 and needs to beat Notre Dame or Syracuse to reach five wins. The Demon Deacons and Gophers are tied with multi-year APRs of 992, but Wake has the best result from the most recent single-year APR (2021-22 school year) with a perfect 1,000 to Minnesota’s 994.
Exactly where the Gophers end up, whether they make a bowl game, depends on how they finish and how many Big Ten teams reach six wins. So far, the Big Ten has six bowl-eligible teams, with the Gophers, Illinois, Nebraska, Northwestern and Wisconsin needing one more win to be eligible.
Media predictions for Minnesota range from no bowl to Quick Lane in Detroit, Guaranteed Rate in Phoenix and Music City in Nashville among Big Ten-affiliated bowls. The Gophers can also fill a slot in a bowl other than the Big Ten that has an opening. Forecasts for these include the Armed Forces in Fort Worth, Texas; first responders in Dallas; and Independence in Shreveport, Louisiana.
Everything will shake out over the next two weekends and the Gophers will see if they can use the front door with a win or try a side door that may not be open.