Gophers fire up for a football season that might present best chance to win West

·5 min read

INDIANAPOLIS – One by one players and coaches from the 14 Big Ten schools took their turns on the risers that dotted the FieldTurf at Lucas Oil Stadium, each sharing thoughts on the upcoming season during Big Ten football media days last week.

While peppered with questions from conference expansion to off-field opportunities, players also had more pressing matters on their mind: finding a way to return to Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship game on Dec. 3.

"I'm so excited about it because we've got a chance," Gophers sixth-year senior center John Michael Schmitz said.

For the Gophers, 2022 might be their best chance to play in Indy. Coach P.J. Fleck returns a veteran squad with the hope of winning the West Division title that has slipped from the Gophers' grasp in two of the past three seasons. With the Big Ten adding Southern California and UCLA beginning in the fall of 2024, the conference's divisional alignment is certain to change.

Add in the NCAA's May ruling that conferences no longer must use a division format for league title games, and the road to Indy — or wherever else the Big Ten puts its title game — could become more difficult for teams like the Gophers. Minnesota has faced East powers Ohio State and Michigan twice each and Penn State only once in Fleck's five years as coach.

"The cultural sustainability goal of this whole thing is to make sure every year you have a chance — you're in the fight, you're in the hunt, you're competing for it," Fleck said. "... We've put ourselves in a position to be in the fight, and if a few things happen to go your way, you've got a better chance to win it."

Additions to the divisions

Since the Big Ten shifted from the Legends and Leaders divisions to the East and West in 2014, East teams have won all eight conference championship games — and by an average score of 35-14. Wisconsin has won four West titles, while Iowa and Northwestern have won two each.

Twice in the past three years, the Gophers controlled their destiny in winning the West and advancing to the title game. In 2019, they reached 9-0 overall with a victory over Penn State, only to fall 23-19 at Iowa the following weekend. The West title came down to the Gophers and Wisconsin in the regular-season finale, and the Badgers rolled 38-17. The Gophers and Badgers tied for the division title at 7-2, but Wisconsin won the head-to-head tiebreaker and the trip to Indy. The Gophers went on to finish 11-2 with an Outback Bowl victory over Auburn.

Last year, the Gophers entered November at 4-1 in the Big Ten and in control of their fate before back-to-back losses to Illinois and Iowa torpedoed their chances. The 27-22 loss at Iowa, in which the Gophers outgained the Hawkeyes 409-277, stung more. Had Minnesota won that game and all other results held, the Gophers would have played for the Big Ten championship. They went on to finish 9-4 with a Guaranteed Rate Bowl victory over West Virginia.

"We could be in the hunt, we can be in the conversation, we can be in the discussion," Fleck said. "I'm not afraid to say that in Year 6."

It appears the Big Ten will keep its current division format through the 2023 season, then adjust when USC and UCLA come aboard. Barry Alvarez, the former Wisconsin coach and athletic director, is a special adviser for football to Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren. Alvarez said the conference is in the early stages of determining its schedule for a 16-team league.

"Everybody's getting their thoughts out on the table," he said, adding that he didn't want to share details of a plan he endorses. "I'll tell the commissioner my preference when the time comes."

Alvarez wants to protect rivalry games — such as Gophers vs. Wisconsin and Iowa vs. Wisconsin — in any new format. Fleck agrees and is eager to see how expansion plays out.

"It'll be interesting to go back in our time machine, get back in that DeLorean and see what happens," he said.

How the West's been won

While Ohio State has been the power in the East Division, winning it five times, the West has seen parity. Wisconsin won three titles in the first four years. Northwestern followed with titles in 2018 and 2020. Iowa claimed its titles in 2015 and 2021.

In a Cleveland.com preseason poll of media members, Wisconsin received 31 of 36 votes to win the West, with Iowa getting three and the Gophers two.

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald sees parity that is a result of consistency in the programs.

"Kirk [Ferentz, Iowa coach] and I have been doing this for a long time,'' he said. "Jeff [Brohm] has done a great job at Purdue. You look at what Bret [Bielema, Illinois coach] has done at multiple stops. P.J. getting Western [Michigan] going and now on a consistent footing at Minnesota. … You pop the tape in and it's like, 'Oh, that's Iowa, that's Minnesota.' There's identity at all those places.''

Fleck and the Gophers have been building that identity as his program matures. Minnesota is 11-6 against the West over the past three seasons and has two wins over Wisconsin since 2018. Over the past three seasons, the Gophers are 5-3 against the East, including a win over Penn State. The roadblock has been Iowa, which is 5-0 against Fleck's Gophers.

Ferentz, entering his 24th season as Iowa's coach, expects the division winner to be the team that best handles adversity.

"Typically, it's still a pretty fine line on how you navigate those things that happen,'' he said. "You can't sit here in July or August and say, 'OK, on Sept. 23, we're going to go through this.' That's what it gets down to.''

Schmitz, an All-America candidate, believes opportunity is knocking for the Gophers.

"Gotta finish. Gotta finish games,'' he said. "It comes with the little details, the focus, the attention we bring … the toughness this team will have to have to get to Indy this year.''