MINNEAPOLIS — If the Gophers beat Nebraska on Saturday, Nov. 11, and lose as expected underdogs to Northwestern and Wisconsin in the final two games, Minnesota will finish 5-7 this season.
The last time they finished a touch under .500 was 2015, when the NCAA didn't have enough eligible programs at six wins to fill its 40 bowls. So, the Gophers went to the Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit based on their strong Academic Progress Rate (APR).
Will a similar scenario play out for the Gophers this season?
"Right now, it doesn't look good" for Minnesota's hopes, said Brett McMurphy, a college football reporter for nearly 30 years.
McMurphy projects the Gophers will finish 5-7 and will stay home for the holidays. He expects all of this year's 39 bowl games to be filled by eligible, six-win teams.
It goes without saying the Gophers' best bet to continue a five-year bowl run is take care of their own business by winning at least two of their last three regular-season games, starting Saturday with an 11 a.m. kickoff against Nebraska.
"Every week I do the projections; one week I would have Minnesota in, the next week I would have them out," McMurphy said. "Right now, I've got them out. Quite frankly, I don't think they can win two out of their last three games."
The Gophers (4-5, 1-5 Big Ten) will travel to Evanston, Ill., to play No. 25 Northwestern (6-3, 4-2) next week. The regular season finale for Paul Bunyan's Axe features a No. 8 Wisconsin (9-0, 6-0) team eyeing not only a Big Ten title but a possible College Football Playoff berth.
Here's the math on the Gophers finishing 5-7 and likely being on the outside looking in.
First off, because there is one less bowl than there was in 2015, there are two fewer spots available this postseason. As of Thursday night, 53 programs had reached the six-win threshold, and 18 more were one win away. Most teams have three games left, and if they all qualify, that's 71 checking in for 78 available spots.
The Gophers and 26 other teams sit at two wins away. If 5-7 teams are needed to round out the field, multi-year APR scores are the first tiebreaker. Minnesota, Duke and Vanderbilt, all 5-7 candidates, have multi-year APRs of 992. In June, the NCAA decided another tiebreaker would be highest APR in the most recent year. That means Vanderbilt would then be the first in, Duke second and Minnesota third.
McMurphy's forecast has 79 or maybe 80 eligible teams for the 78 spots. Last week, CBS Sports' Jerry Palm had Vanderbilt, Duke and the Gophers getting in at 5-7. On his projections this week, Minnesota has been left off.
Last year, North Texas, Mississippi State and Hawaii went to bowls with losing records. Army and South Alabama got in with six wins despite having multiple victories over FCS schools when only one should be counted to achieve bowl eligibility.
The recent mess has been created by not enough Power Five conference programs winning six games, and smaller-conference schools winning more. McMurphy projects the Big Ten, SEC, ACC and Big XII will all fall short of their allotted bowl berths, with the Pac-12 as the only league having a slight abundance of eligible teams.
The Big Ten currently has seven bowl-eligible teams: Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Northwestern, Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin. Five sit at 4-5: the Gophers, Nebraska, Purdue, Maryland and Rutgers. Meanwhile, the conference promotes "the largest bowl lineup in conference history," with 11 affiliated games.
If the Big Ten gets a team pulled up to the College Football Playoff series, they'll likely have trouble filling all their commitments.
"The Big Ten can moan and all this stuff, but if there is a six-win MAC team out there, they are getting in in front of a five-win Minnesota," McMurphy said.
With a lack of trademark teams such as Florida, Tennessee, UCLA and likely Nebraska, there could be matchups against lesser-known programs from, say, the Sun Belt and the Mountain West conferences.
"This is going to be very ugly for bowl fans," McMurphy said.
But the headaches of 5-7 teams in bowl games won't end.
"'Why are we sitting here looking at 5-7 teams? We need to get rid of some of these bowls.' You are 100 percent correct," McMurphy said. "The issue is nobody in college football looks at it that way. (Big Ten commissioner) Jim Delany looks at it as, 'I need as many bowl games for my teams, so when they get to six wins they have a place to go, so I'm going to make as many deals as I can.'"
In April, the NCAA placed a moratorium on new bowl games before the 2020 season. While the Poinsettia Bowl ended because of its joint affiliation with the Holiday Bowl in San Diego, locations such as Austin, Texas, and Charleston, S.C., have been lining up to join the buffet.
"Believe me, there will be conferences that say, 'Hey, we will come to your bowl game,'" McMurphy said. "So, we will get in this same situation again."
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