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5 things to know about Minnesota

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5 things to know about Minnesota, Auburn’s bowl opponent

Updated 1:49 PM;Today 8:07 AM

5-7 minutes

To end its season, Auburn will head to Tampa, Florida to play the Minnesota Golden Gophers, a Big Ten team that seemingly came out of nowhere and had a historical season.

After going 7-6 in 2018, the Golden Gophers finished 10-2 and earned themselves an invitation to their third Florida-based bowl ever.

While Auburn’s other 2019 opponents might have been unfamiliar because the Tigers had not faced them in years, the Golden Gophers are complete strangers. Auburn has never (ever) played Minnesota, in the regular season, in a bowl game, or otherwise.

Here are five things to know about the energetic players, coach and fans that will be rowing their boat down to the Outback Bowl:

1. A season of firsts:

Not only is it the first time Minnesota has ever faced Auburn, but it’s also the first time since 1905 that the Golden Gophers have finished with 10 wins. Since the start of the season, they were crossing off firsts. When they beat Illinois, they increased to 5-0 for the season — their first 5-0 start since 2004. When they beat Nebraska, their 6-0 record was the first since 2003, and their 8-0 record going back to 2018 was the first time they’d won eight straight since 1948-1949. Then they improved their 2019 season record to 8-0, the first time since 1941. They finally lost to Iowa after a 9-0 start, the first since 1904. They finished the season 10-2. When they beat No. 4 Penn State this season, the Gophers also checked off their first win over a top-five team since 1999. They ascended as high as No. 8 in the College Football Playoff rankings, the highest in program history.

2. Respected by his players and his peers:

P.J. Fleck, who was hired as the head coach in January 2016, was selected by his fellow coaches as Big Ten coach of the year. He coached them to their first 10-win season since 1905 and the first seven-win Big Ten season in program history. The team has a program-best average GPA, as well. Fleck, who’s been a head coach since he started at Western Michigan in 2013, will be returning to Tampa where he was the wide receivers coach in 2012.

With his bald head, colored pants and quarterzip over a shirt and tie, Fleck has led the way for the Gophers with the cry “Row the Boat.” Throughout the season, he’s dropped many cliches and sayings, and he’s led his team on scavenger hunts to help them win games. Fleck’s been referred to as “weird” by The Loop and “flamboyant” by CBS Sports, but no one is denying that he and his team are having fun.

3. By the numbers:

Offensively, Minnesota is barely ranked above Auburn nationally, with the 49th-most offensive yards to Auburn’s 53rd-most yards. Like Auburn, they run the ball more, but they’re more evenly split between their passing and rushing offense. They’re ranked 47th in rushing and 51st in passing, while Auburn is 26th in rushing yards and 85th in passing yards. They have strong wide receivers, two of whom won Big Ten season honors, and they’re led by a sophomore quarterback who’s ranked 24th for most passing yards and sixth for passing efficiency.

Defensively, Minnesota has been led by its secondary. It’s given up the 11th fewest passing yards in the nation while making 14 interceptions. Sophomore Antoine Whitfield is fourth nationally with seven interceptions. Minnesota is giving up 184.9 passing yards per game compared to Auburn’s 208.4. The Gophers are allowing 127.9 rushing yards a game, just 12.4 more yards than Auburn is allowing.

4. All things shiny:

With their outstanding season, several Minnesota players are collecting awards, including holder Casey O’Brien who won the Disney Spirit award. The Disney award goes out to the nation’s most inspirational college football player, coach, team or figure. O’Brien overcame four bouts of cancer to play football. He was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a rare type of bone cancer, in high school and told he would never play football again. Although he had to switch from quarterback to holder, he proved the diagnosis wrong and made his collegiate debut in Minnesota’s win over Rutgers.

Quarterback Morgan is also one of the finalists for the Manning Award. Wide receivers Rashod Bateman and Tyler Johnson both made the All-Big Ten First Team, marking the first time one school has taken both receiver spots. Bateman was also the only Big Ten player to be a semifinalist for the Biletnikoff Award. Defensive back Antoine Winfield Jr. will be competing with Derrick Brown as a finalist for the Nagurski award. And the list keeps going…

5. The Gophers are fine against the SEC:

The Outback Bowl will be Minnesota’s 18th game against an SEC opponent. The last time they played an SEC team was in 2015 when they played Missouri in the Citrus Bowl and lost 33-17. The time before that was when they beat Alabama in the 2004 Music City Bowl 20-16. Overall, the Gophers are 8-8-1 against SEC teams. Although the program itself doesn’t have much familiarity with the SEC, it does have plenty of players from SEC territory. There are 33 players on the roster from states with SEC schools. Twelve of them are from Georgia, seven are from Florida and five are from Texas. There are also players from Kentucky, Missouri, Louisiana and Arkansas. The Outback Bowl will give the Gophers the chance to pass .500 against the SEC.

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