When one of college football’s blue bloods is having a bad season, it not only has an effect in the home market, it also can have a trickle-down impact when that team goes on the road.
That’s what happened Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium, when an announced crowd of 39,993 saw the Gophers wallop Nebraska 54-21. The crowd was the second-smallest in TCF Bank Stadium history – the Nov. 19, 2016, game against Northwestern drew 38,162 – and there appeared to be fewer in the seats. It was clear that not nearly as many Cornhuskers fans as usual made the trip north and that Nebraska wasn't the draw in the Twin Cities as it often is.
The Gophers (5-5) are averaging 43,873 in six home games in coach P.J. Fleck’s first year, a slight increase from last year’s average of 43,814. They should get a boost from the Nov. 25 home finale against unbeaten Wisconsin, which is in the hunt for a College Football Playoff berth. If attendance for the Wisconsin game hits 52,000 – it has averaged nearly 53,000 in the Badgers’ past two visits -- Minnesota’s average would creep above 45,000 for the season. That would be the second lowest in the stadium’s nine-year history, but it’s better than last year’s fall of 8,541 from a stadium-best 52,355 in 2015.
Interestingly, drops in attendance at TCF followed two coaching changes. The Gophers fell from an average of 49,513 in the final year of Tim Brewster and interim Jeff Horton to 47,714 in Jerry Kill’s first year. The 2015 season saw Kill retire because of health reasons and Tracy Claeys take over, and that big attendance number was helped by the presence of No. 2 TCU (which drew 54,147, the largest crowd in stadium history), Nebraska, Michigan and Wisconsin on the schedule. In Claeys’ first full year as coach in 2016, the home slate in Big Ten play had a decent draw in Iowa, but also had Rutgers, Purdue and Northwestern.
Saturday’s sub-40,000 number for the Gophers against a 4-5 Nebraska team showed just how much things have turned for the Huskers in coach Mike Riley’s third year in Lincoln. When Riley brought his Huskers to Minneapolis on Oct. 17, 2015, they were 2-4 but still helped boost the attendance to 54,062, the second most in TCF history. Since joining the Big Ten in 2011, Nebraska has played at TCF four times, with the other two games drawing 49,995 in 2013 and 49,187 in 2011.
Along with Wisconsin and Iowa, Nebraska consistently has helped the Gophers attract some of their largest home crowds, and the preseason expectations that the Huskers would be a contender for the Big Ten West title seemed to align with that. But Nebraska lost two of its first three games, with a 21-17 home loss to Northern Illinois prompting the firing of athletic director Shawn Eichorst. The Huskers entered the contest against the Gophers three losses in their previous four games.