Gophers get to play on New Year's Day
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) The prestige of taking the field on New Year's Day has faded with the expansion and evolution of the bowl system. The national focus has fallen squarely on the four teams in the inaugural College Football Playoff. The championship game will be held more than a week into January.
This matters not to Minnesota. The Gophers will be playing on New Year's Day for the first time in 53 years, quite the feat for a program that has mostly languished in the bottom half of the Big Ten for the last half-century.
''I think it's huge in terms of exposure. You have 16, 17, 18-year-olds all across the country sitting in their living rooms, watching Minnesota play meaningful football,'' senior defensive tackle Cameron Botticelli said.
The Gophers were picked Sunday to play Missouri in the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Florida. The destination itself was warmly welcomed by the coaches eyeing a critical recruiting area, by the 13 players on the roster who are from the Sunshine State and by long-frustrated fans used to late-December bowl games in Houston, the Phoenix area or Nashville.
The fact that the game will be played on Jan. 1, well, that was as good as the Gophers could have hoped for after losing the Big Ten West Division to rival Wisconsin and missing out on the conference championship game.
''I grew up that way,'' coach Jerry Kill said, reflecting on his Kansas roots. ''Your mom puts a ham in the oven, you get your cheese dip and whatever and you sit there, you get your blanket and start watching football, am I right? That's what you've done for years.''
The last New Year's Day game Minnesota played in was the 1962 Rose Bowl, a 21-3 victory over UCLA. That was the second straight trip to Pasadena, California, for those Gophers, who lost 17-7 to Washington the year before but were still picked as national champions for the 1960 season.
Minnesota has played in 14 bowl games since those back-to-back Rose Bowls. Only one, the 2000 Micronpc.com Bowl in Miami Gardens, was in Florida. Of the last nine times the Gophers have gone to a bowl game, three were in Texas, three were in Arizona and three were in Tennessee.
With Florida tied for Wisconsin as the second-most represented state behind Minnesota on the roster, this will be an extra special trip for several key players.
''Playing here in the Midwest, you don't get many opportunities to play back home in Florida,'' said defensive end Thieren Cockran, who is from Homestead, a suburb of Miami. ''I'm trying to get some tickets for all of my family members, so it's been a little chaos.''
Call that a good problem to have.
''We've talked about taking steps. This is another step forward,'' Kill said.