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It's easy to be pessimistic about the near-term future of the Gophers football program.

After relative stability and success in 2019, 2021 and 2022, P.J. Fleck's Gophers slumped to a five-win regular season in 2023 -- including losses in their last four Big Ten games.

They enter 2024 with oddsmakers having set their over-under victory total at 4.5, owing to a daunting schedule and last year's disappointing finish. The Big Ten is adding four new schools that will make it harder for Minnesota to compete for a conference title. And the era of name, image and likeness plus the transfer portal makes it harder to build a program from the ground up -- a strength of Fleck.

But I'm asking you to set all that aside for a moment and take a look at the long view. For the first time in several decades, the Gophers have a realistic chance to be a contender on the national stage.

It probably won't happen this year. In their best years, though, that will be true -- as I talked about on Wednesday's Daily Delivery podcast.

The reason? College football is headed to a 12-team playoff starting in 2024. The format was approved this week, and it will guarantee a spot for the five highest-ranked conference champions along with the next seven highest-ranked teams.

Realistically, it will be extremely hard for the Gophers to compete for a Big Ten title with 17 other teams, including several powerhouses.

But it is conceivable that they could be among the seven at-large teams battling for a spot in the final 12. It is far more likely than it was when the playoff was limited to four teams, just as it is more possible to envision the Gophers being a national contender than the old days when polling determined national champions.

Glen Mason's best Gophers teams in 1999 and 2003 finished with a top-20 ranking. The 2003 team in particular -- yeah, the one that lost to Michigan after blowing that big lead -- was good enough to finish in the top 12.

Jerry Kill's best Gophers team in 2014 was ranked No. 18 heading into a showdown for the Big Ten West title at Wisconsin (which they lost 34-24). That team could have been in the national mix under the current format.

And certainly Fleck's best team in 2019, the one that finished 11-2 and with a No. 10 national ranking, would have been a true contender.

It won't happen every year. But once or twice a decade, the Gophers should have a team that -- with the right mix and a couple breaks -- should have a legitimate chance at the College Football Playoff.

Here are four more things to know today:

*Also on Wednesday's podcast, Star Tribune columnist La Velle E. Neal III joined me to talk about a bunch of subjects. We tried to make the case that the Twins should be active in free agency with some big names still out there, but it sounds like Twins executive chair Joe Pohlad is already dousing cold water on the idea.

*Lost in the dazzle of the Wild's 10-7 win Monday was the fact that they gave up seven goals. They gave up six more (one empty netter) in a loss to Winnipeg on Tuesday, reminding us again that their netminders have been subpar on balance this season.

*Mara Braun's injury derailed the Gophers women's basketball team's promising season. But should it be this bad without her? I don't think so, and Chip Scoggins has good details on what else is lacking after another loss Tuesday.

*On a more upbeat note, Marcus Fuller will join Thursday's podcast to talk about the Gophers men's basketball team. At 7-7 in the Big Ten, an NCAA tournament bid could be within reach if the Gophers have a strong finish. A home win over Ohio State on Thursday is critical.