The debate raged Saturday night from tailgate gatherings to watering holes and to internet rant sessions, and it went something like this:
Glass half-full person: Hey, the Gophers are pretty good. They are 3-0 with three blowout wins.
Indeed, the Gophers have been impressive in outscoring their opponents by a combined 149-17 and dominating play through the nonconference season.
Glass half-empty person: But they haven't played anybody!
Yes, point taken. The teams the Gophers have played — New Mexico State, Western Illinois and Colorado — are a combined 0-10 and have been outscored 396-97. It's tough to build respect when the opposition offers so little resistance.
To bridge that gap between the half-full and half-empty crowd, the Gophers need to start playing the "somebodies" of the college football world. And at last, that happens Saturday with a trip to Michigan State for the Big Ten opener.
The Spartans were ranked No. 11 in the Associated Press Top 25 before losing 39-28 at Washington on Saturday night. They dropped out of the poll Sunday but still will present the biggest challenge the Gophers have faced so far. The Spartans were 11-2 last year, with a victory over Big Ten champion Michigan before beating Pittsburgh in the Peach Bowl.
"We'll do everything we can to play one of the best teams in the Big Ten, one of the best teams in the country, a top-10 team in the country, and do everything we can to put a game plan together to put our players in the best position to be successful," Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said. "But they're a really good football team."
The Gophers faced little adversity during the nonconference schedule, but that's likely to change this week. Chris Autman-Bell, the Gophers' top receiver, suffered a knee injury during the second quarter against Colorado, and his status is uncertain.
While leaping in attempt to catch a high pass, Autman-Bell landed awkwardly and immediately grabbed his right knee after hitting the turf. He lay on the field for a few minutes, tended to by training staff and with Fleck by his side. The sixth-year senior was helped off the field and didn't put weight on his right knee. He did not return to the game, and in his postgame news conference, Fleck said he didn't have an immediate update on Autman-Bell's condition. Presumably, that will come Monday during Fleck's news conference previewing the Michigan State game.
If he's lost for an extended period, Autman-Bell won't be easy to replace. He leads the Gophers with 11 receptions for 214 yards and a touchdown this season and has 125 catches for 1,970 yards and 13 touchdowns in his career. The offense missed his presence last year when he was limited by an ankle injury.
"We love Crab to death, and he's a huge part of this team," quarterback Tanner Morgan said. "Whatever happens or whatever it is, he's always gonna be a huge part of this team. We had guys come in and be able to step up and make plays, which is what it's all about."
The Gophers will be playing their first road game of the season at a place they haven't visited since 2013. They have lost three in a row in East Lansing, and their last victory at Spartan Stadium came five coaches ago, when Glen Mason's last team beat the Spartans 31-18 in 2006.
Throughout the nonconference season, Gophers players kept their focus on the task at hand, trying to hone their game while not concerning themselves with the quality of opponent they were playing or listening to outside noise.
"We worry about us and focus on what we have to do to win the football game,'' linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin said. "It's going to be our first road game, so we're going to have to teach the young guys what it's like to play on the road. We talk about it all the time: Our culture travels, and it doesn't matter where we play, our standard of football comes with us.''