This isn't P.J. Fleck's best Gophers team. That distinction remains firmly planted on the 2019 team that won 11 games and shared the Big Ten West title, losing a place in the conference title game on a tiebreaker.
But this ranks as the biggest missed opportunity of his six-year coaching tenure — something that is both frustrating in the moment and that will allow regret to calcify over time.
The schedule will never be this forgiving. The West, for as mediocre as it has been at various points over the years, might never be this bad again.
At least in 2019, when the dust settled, the Gophers could say their only two losses came to 10-win Wisconsin and 10-win Iowa.
This year, with so many gifts at their disposal and with the confidence coming from four straight blowout wins to start the season, the Gophers let two games in particular define their season: A 20-10 homecoming loss to Purdue that they chased for weeks, and a 13-10 home loss to Iowa on Saturday just when they were on the verge of catching up.
Patrick Reusse and I talked about Iowa game on Monday's Daily Delivery podcast, where I doubled down on my Saturday observation on Twitter: Fleck and former Vikings coach Mike Zimmer are very different people but nearly identical game day coaches.
They both play not to lose.
Fleck's conservative nature, a hallmark of his tenure in Minnesota, let the Gophers down on Saturday. Could they have won the game playing that way? Sure. But it leaves little margin for error, and the Gophers made two big ones with fourth quarter turnovers Saturday.
The second came on a third-and-7 from Iowa's 33. Going into the wind, the Gophers probably needed at least one more first down for a field goal. So they attempted a pass ... and it was intercepted. If you're mad about the pass, don't be.
Be frustrated by the inability and or unwillingness to put together a consistent passing attack all season. When you don't pass until you have to, you can't pass when you need to.
And so here's the reality of the Gophers' season: Their seven wins are against teams with a combined record of 18-58, and their four losses are to teams who are a combined 30-14. Fleck's formula has tended to work great against the bad teams and not-so-much against the good.
Or, in the case of losses to Purdue, Illinois and Iowa this year, the least terrible in the Big Ten West.
Their 2023 opponents have a combined record this season of 79-51, including undefeated Michigan and Ohio State. In 2024, the Big Ten is set to welcome powerhouses UCLA and USC.
It will never be as easy as it was this year, which makes it hurt that much more.