For Gophers and fans, it's grief and then a bowl game
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For Gophers and fans, it's grief and then a bowl game

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Minnesota Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan (2) high-fives head coach P.J. Fleck after Morgan's fourth quarter touchdown pass to wide receiver Tyler Johnson (6) on Saturday, Nov. 23, 2019 at Ryan Field in Evanston, Ill.

Minnesota Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan (2) high-fives head coach P.J. Fleck after Morgan's fourth quarter touchdown pass to wide receiver Tyler Johnson (6) on Saturday, Nov. 23, 2019 at Ryan Field in Evanston, Ill. (Aaron Lavinsky/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS)

MINNEAPOLIS - Coach P.J. Fleck had a message for fans after the Gophers lost 38-17 to Wisconsin on Saturday, a defeat that cost them more than just the rivalry trophy.

"We didn't tonight. But that doesn't mean we won't forever," Fleck said. "We just accomplished nevers, firsts, restorations. ... We got the older-generation people thinking, 'We got a chance to go back to the Rose Bowl.' Legitimately. Not if, like, 15 teams lose."

Despite his impassioned speech, though, missing out on another coveted postseason game is what many fans will bitterly remember from this season. Even if that's a bit unfair, considering this 10-2 season saw the Gophers accomplish their first-ever seven-win Big Ten season and their first 10-win regular season since 1905.

But when the program's first trip to the Big Ten Championship Game was within reach, when just winning one more game meant an almost ensured return to the Rose Bowl after nearly 58 years of longing, the Gophers snatching away that dangling carrot at the last minute will take some time to accept.

The fans and the team both have a month to rinse the sour taste out of their collective mouths. And they'll likely emerge from the early-onset seasonal depression to bask in a warm-weather locale and send off an emotionally draining 2019 season with relaxing vacation vibes.

The Gophers will know their bowl game destination and opponent on Sunday, once all the conference championship games wrap up Saturday. Jerry Palm, a CBS Sports senior writer, predicted the Gophers will face Florida (10-2) in the Outback Bowl on Jan. 1 in Tampa, Fla.

Palm said the College Football Playoff rankings that come out Tuesday will be the major decider for bowl games, as those rankings take into an account an entire season's body of work. With Ohio State (12-0) basically a lock for the CFP, and Wisconsin (10-2) and Penn State (10-2) both likely to rank ahead of the Gophers, Minnesota will be kept out of a New Year's Six game. Because even though the Gophers beat Penn State, Penn State beat Iowa, which beat the Gophers. And the Gophers also lost big to Wisconsin, which didn't help.

Palm has Ohio State in the national semifinal Peach Bowl, Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl and Penn State in the Orange Bowl. Should Penn State go to a different bowl, that could reopen the Big Ten's spot in the Citrus Bowl, Palm said, which the Gophers could take. But right now, Palm has that game as Virginia Tech vs. Alabama, meaning the Gophers would have to face an SEC powerhouse and another possible demoralizing blowout.

After the New Year's Six and Citrus Bowl, the Outback Bowl is next best for a Big Ten team. Palm said he would be "shocked" if the Gophers fell any further than that, to something like the Gator Bowl or Pinstripe Bowl.

And the Outback Bowl, while not the Rose Bowl, is not such a bad consolation prize.

"That's a New Year's Day game against an SEC team that thinks it's better than you," Palm said, adding it is a winnable game if his projected Gophers-Florida matchup comes to fruition. "... It's a great opportunity against a great opponent from a great league. And it's a momentum-building opportunity. Losing a bowl game is not the end of the world. Winning a bowl game can really put some juice into your program."

The Gophers experienced that last season after taking down Georgia Tech in the Quick Lane Bowl. And look what the ensuing season brought.

As far as the Rose Bowl, while the selection committee does have the ability to choose any Big Ten team it wants if the best team in the conference goes to the CFP instead, it would take "extraordinary" and unprecedented measures to forsake the rankings and pick the Gophers just because they haven't gone in a long time, Palm said.

"We don't get to go to the Rose Bowl, maybe. We don't get to go to the national championship," Fleck said. "But we get to do a lot of other things."

Fleck urged fans to "not go back" to the ingrained Minnesota sports fan's way of thinking, knowing this was too good to be true but fooled again into expecting otherwise.

"Let it go," he said.

If only the Gophers hadn't done that with all their postseason aspirations, coloring a desirable New Year's bowl game to feel like a disappointment.

Visit the Star Tribune (Minneapolis) at www.startribune.com

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