It took four seasons, upset victories at Nebraska and Michigan, and Minnesota’s first AP top-25 ranking since 2008, but Jerry Kill’s team is finally in a New Year’s Day bowl game.
Minnesota will play Missouri in the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Fla., on Jan. 1, 2015.
“We talked about taking steps, and this is another step forward,” Kill said. “[It] certainly helps us as we go recruit.”
Minnesota’s coaching staff will be on the road recruiting this week, and they now have a big game to sell to prospective players. On top of that, the Gophers will garner exposure from the matchup.
The game will be aired nationally on ABC at noon, just hours before the College Football Playoff semifinals, on a holiday that is linked with college football.
“Your mom puts a ham in the oven, you get your cheese dip or whatever,” Kill said. “You sit there, get your blanket and you’re watching football. There’s a lot of tradition out there.”
Minnesota’s players seem excited to be playing on the big stage. The Gophers haven’t been in a New Year’s Day bowl game since 1962.
“Christmas came early,” redshirt senior defensive lineman Cameron Botticelli said. “I think it’s huge in terms of exposure. You have 16, 17, 18 year olds sitting in their living rooms and watching Minnesota play football.”
While playing a January bowl game is a big step for the program, the Gophers aren’t content. Minnesota has lost both its bowl games under Kill, and last year’s game was a particularly big letdown.
After the 21-17 loss to Syracuse, Kill told his players they better be “starving” to come back as a more complete team the following season.
“I can guarantee that coach Kill won’t let us fall short this time,” Botticelli said. “We’re not going there to lose. We have a lot of hard work ahead of us.”
Redshirt junior defensive lineman Theiren Cockran, a Florida native, said there is a sense of unfinished business after falling short the past two years.
“We’ve got to finish this season strong, and it’s going to set up how we go into next season,” he said.
But finding a way to win against No. 16 Missouri, a Southeastern Conference opponent, won’t be easy. Minnesota is facing a hungry team that this year made it to the championship game of the nation’s top conference.
“To get that win, it would be huge for the Big Ten,” Cockran said.
Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel described Minnesota in a conference call as a “very disciplined, well-coached team.”
Though there is more than three weeks before the two coaches face off, preparation for the matchup begins now. After all, more people than usual will be watching Minnesota play football.
“The biggest thing is the coverage we’re getting from it,” Kill said. “I know how good of a football program [Pinkel] has, so we’ll have to do a lot of work.”