Hot Reads: From 4-5 to Win-and-In Playoff Contender in 367 Days
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Hot Reads: From 4-5 to Win-and-In Playoff Contender in 367 Days

November 06, 2019

A lot can happen in a year and there are a lot of ways to chart that passage of time.

Today let's chart it using Minnesota football. Following the first Saturday in November in 2018, the Golden Gophers were 4-5 and coming off a humiliating loss to Illinois. (Sound familiar?) FPI ranked Minnesota 72nd, 0.7 points worse than the average team.

Following the first Saturday in November this year, Minnesota is 8-0 and 20th in FPI, rated as 12.9 points better than the average team. Since that loss to Illinois on Nov. 3, 2018–after which P.J. Fleck fired his defensive coordinator–the Gophers are 11-1. Fleck got an extension and pay bump on Tuesday and a couple of hours later Minnesota was included in the first College Football Playoff rankings of the season.

At No. 17.

If you're a Nebraska fan wondering how the Huskers climb out of the sinkhole that opened underneath the 2019 season, Minnesota's last 367 days don't show how to do it, but it is an example of it being done. Nebraska, 4-5 and coming off a humiliating loss to Purdue, is 59th in FPI and rated as 0.7 better than the average team. It is effectively where Minnesota was one year ago. The Gophers closed out the 2018 season with two big wins over Purdue and Wisconsin, a 10-point loss to eventual division champ Northwestern and a 34-10 win over Georgia Tech in the QuickLane Bowl.

I know some people have a natural resistance to acknowledging Fleck, but that's a helluva job. I honestly thought Minnesota would be higher than No. 17 in the CFP rankings. Sure, there were the close wins at the beginning of the season. And, yes, there's the backup quarterback fact that people like to cite when talking about the Gophers.

But Minnesota is still 8-0 in one of the two toughest conferences in the country. I don't see a ton of difference between undefeated Minnesota and undefeated Baylor at this point, but the Bears were five spots higher in the initial rankings. The Gophers at No. 17 isn't egregious by any means, just a little behind what they've actually earned through eight games in my opinion. Maybe Fleck's relentless enthusiasm wears on members of the committee, too?

Or maybe it's a brand thing? In the first CFP rankings of 2016, Nebraska was No. 10 following an overtime loss at Wisconsin. The Huskers were 7-1 but their only notable win was a lucky one over an Oregon team that would finish that season 4-8. FPI had those Huskers at 28th, 12.1 points better than the average team.

But don't feel too bad for Minnesota for a slightly deflated ranking. If the Gophers win out, they're in. Heck, if they win out in the regular season and lose close in the Big Ten championship game to an undefeated Ohio State (CFP No. 1) that could be enough for them to be in the discussion still. That’s because Minnesota's November is brutal. Penn State (CFP No. 4) visits this week then Minnesota goes to Iowa (CFP No. 18) and Northwestern in back-to-back weeks before hosting Wisconsin (CFP No. 13) in the regular-season finale.

With that slate, it's possible that 17th will be the highest Minnesota is ranked in this year's CFP rankings. And that's OK. Would going 1-3 over the final four prompt some "I knew they were never for real" comments from the most reactionary among us? Sure would, but it really wouldn't change how far the Gophers have come in a calendar year.

Nebraska would take that kind of year ahead in a heartbeat.

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