Gophers coach P.J. Fleck often emphasizes that he wants his players to grow "academically, athletically, socially and spiritually."
While the athletic part of the equation isn't going as well as the Gophers had hoped this season — they sit at 5-5 entering Saturday's game at No. 2 Ohio State — the academic portion has the potential to bail the team out come bowl season.
The Gophers need to beat either the Buckeyes, or Wisconsin in the Nov. 25 finale at Huntington Bank Stadium, to secure a sixth win and the bowl eligibility that goes along with it.
There is, however, a side door the Gophers could use to play in a bowl even if they drop their final two regular-season games and finish 5-7.
If there are not enough teams with six or more wins to fill the 82 spots in the 41 bowl games, five-win teams with the best multiyear Academic Progress Rate (APR) scores would be used to fill such spots. The Gophers followed this path in 2015 when they went 5-7 but advanced to the Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit and defeated Central Michigan 21-14.
With two weeks left in the regular season, 58 teams had reached six wins and secured bowl eligibility, leaving 24 spots to fill. There are 24 FBS teams with five wins, so expect the number of open spots to decrease over the next two weeks.
This year, there is a twist in filling empty bowl spots. James Madison and Jacksonville (Ala.) State have moved up to FBS from FCS, but still have probationary status and cannot vie for their conference titles and automatic bowl bids. The NCAA, however, ruled that probationary teams like James Madison (10-0) and Jacksonville State (7-3) with six or more wins can fill vacant bowl spots before five-win teams are considered by use of multiyear APR scores.
The Gophers have a multiyear APR score of 992, which is tied for eighth with Air Force and Wake Forest among FBS schools. Five of the teams ahead of or tied with them — Clemson, Alabama, Ole Miss, Ohio State and Air Force — already have reached bowl eligibility. Northwestern (5-5) and Wisconsin (5-5) are tied for first in APR at 996, and the Gophers-Wisconsin matchup guarantees one of the two will have six wins and reach bowl eligibility.
Should the Gophers fall to 5-7, there likely would need to be at least four open bowl spots for them to get in. The first two would go to James Madison and Jacksonville State. Should Northwestern lose to both Purdue and Illinois to finish 5-7, the Wildcats would be next in line. Cincinnati (3-7) ranks sixth in APR at 994 but must beat both West Virginia and Kansas to reach five wins.
A team to watch should the Gophers finish 5-7 is Wake Forest, which is 4-6 and needs to beat Notre Dame or Syracuse to reach five wins. The Demon Deacons and Gophers are tied with multiyear APRs of 992, but Wake has the tiebreaker of most recent single-year APR (the 2021-22 school year) with a perfect 1,000 to Minnesota's 994.
Exactly where the Gophers end up, should they make a bowl, depends on how they finish and how many Big Ten teams reach six wins. So far, the Big Ten has six bowl-eligible teams, with the Gophers, Illinois, Nebraska, Northwestern and Wisconsin each needing one more win to be eligible.
Media projections for Minnesota range from no bowl at all to the Quick Lane in Detroit, Guaranteed Rate in Phoenix and Music City in Nashville among the Big Ten-affiliated bowls. The Gophers also could end up filling a slot in a non-Big Ten bowl that has an opening. Projections of those include the Armed Forces in Fort Worth, Texas; the First Responders in Dallas; and the Independence in Shreveport, La.
Everything will shake out over the next two weekends, and the Gophers will see if they can use the front door by winning or try a side door that might not be open.