Friday, December 11, 2009

Friday Rant: Yeah, The Insight Bowl Isn't Great, But.......

The Gopher football team found out it will play Iowa State in the Insight Bowl on New Year's Eve this season while the rest of the college football world held its collective breath waiting to see who snagged BCS bids. While Iowa will head for its BCS bowl, the Gophers will settle for the Insight Bowl for the third time in four seasons.

Still, it could be a lot worse.

In 1985, the Gophers finished 6-5 and accepted an invitation to play in the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, AL. It was the fourth bowl game in school history, and under head coach Lou Holtz, it promised to be the first of many. Of course, "The Music Man" (if ever there were a "Snake Oil Salesman," Holtz was one) left after his 6th place conference finish for greener pastures (no pun intended) at Notre Dame, and the Gophers were coached by John Gutekunst. They defeated Clemson 20-13 in the game and the '85 season was deemed successful at 7-5. By the way, the Gopher victories that season came against Wichita State, Montana, Purdue, Northwestern, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Clemson. Not one of those teams had a winning record in 1985 - so Holtz turned around the program by beating losing teams; hmmmm......

Things looked promising in 1986. Gutekunst's victory in the Independence Bowl led him to be named permanent head coach, and the team defeated Bowling Green in the season opener. However, the Gophers were then throttled 63-0 against Oklahoma and then lost to the University of the Pacific at home to start 1-2 in non-conference play. The Gophers would rally to finish 6-5, highlighted by a comeback victory over #2 Michigan on a last-second Chip Lohmiller field goal. Other than Michigan, the Gophers defeated nary an above-.500 opponent in 1986, but 6-5 was still good enough to get them an invitation to the Liberty Bowl. Tennessee defeated the Gophers 21-14 in Memphis that year, and the Gophers were 6-6.

The football program would go a full twelve seasons before playing in another bowl game. 

Granted, the collegiate bowl landscape has changed dramatically over the past 20 years. While there were once a half-dozen bowls, highlighted by the Rose Bowl, in which the Gophers have not appeared since 1962, there are 33 bowls which will be played this season. A full sixty-six teams will earn the right to play in the 2009 post-season, featuring such instant classics like the MAACO Bowl, the Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl, the St. Petersburg Bowl, and the International Bowl. The Insight Bowl seems none the less prestigious.

However saturated the bowl landscape has become, one cannot escape the fact that the Gophers still managed to go from 1986 to 1999 without playing in a bowl game of any kind - major or minor. Glen Mason's arrival in 1997 started a resurgence of the program which ended up making its first of seven bowl appearances before his dismissal after the 2006 Insight Bowl. Yes, he made three appearances in the Music City Bowl, two at the Sun Bowl, and one each at the Insight Bowl and Micron bowl, but seven appearances in ten years for a program which had made five bowl apperances EVER prior to his arrival would have elevated some coaches to deity status. At Minnesota, we became so used to post-season football that we decided that second-tier bowl games weren't enough, and pressured Joel Maturi to fire Mase.

Now, Tim Brewster is in his third season at the U, and his success (or lack thereof) has been much-debated. Still, he has back-to-back bowl appearances on his resume for his three seasons at the helm. Looking at the 2009 schedule during summertime, most realistic Gopher fans would have accepted a 6-6 mark overall, given the improvement in the non-conference schedule (Air Force, Syracuse, Cal, and South Dakota State are a much more talented lot that 2008's games against Northern Illinois, Bowling Green, Montana State, and Florida Atlantic), coupled with a Big Ten schedule which saw the Gophers forced to play Penn State, Ohio State, and Iowa all on the road. As I have written before, a lot of the anti-Brewster discussion would have been mitigated had the Gophers beaten Illinois to finish 7-5 (4-4), but losing to the Illini was a bad thing. Period.

Still, now that the season has ended, the Insight Bowl jokes abound, blowhards like Patrick Reusse and Jim Souhan of the Star Tribune are making continual pleas to have Brewster dismissed, and guys who preach some patience (like me) get compared to Sid.

However, things could be much worse at Minnesota than the current situation. The team has a nice new stadium on campus after decades of whining from the fan base that it was absolutely necessary. The recruiting classes brought in by Brewster in his first two seasons are better than any Mason class over his final five years on campus, and the 2010 class is expected to be strong as well (Seantrel Henderson or not). The team has a tough schedule ahead in 2010 (non-conference games are against Middle Tennessee State, South Dakota, USC, and Northern Illinois), but now has home games against Ohio State, Penn State, and Iowa for which to look forward. And finally, the seniors have a bowl game for which to look forward.

Iowa State will be a good challenge for the Gophers at this year's Insight Bowl (Why don't these teams play more often? ISU is the closest D-1 campus to the U of M.), but this is a game the Gophers should win. A victory would end the season 7-6 and a winning record is certainly better than the alternative, especially for a program which has been stuck in neutral for as long as Minnesota's.

Of course, even an Insight Bowl victory will be viewed with skepticism by the Gopher detractors who want nothing more than somebody else's coach roaming the sidelines at Minnesota next fall. Of course, those folks will be looking for THAT coach's replacement within two seasons should the new coach finish anything less than 11-1 by year two.

I mean, hell, we have a new stadium! 

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