The biggest game in the history of University of Minnesota football!

Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck.
Photo by Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

By Ray Richardson

There’s no sense in debating it. Saturday’s Gophers-Penn State matchup is simply the most pivotal game in the 137-year history of University of Minnesota football.

Minnesota sports fans and Gophers supporters have been crying for years about the lack of a big-time atmosphere for the football program. Well, this long-awaited moment has arrived.

Will the undefeated and 13th-ranked Gophers (8-0) shock the world with an upset win over fifth-ranked Penn State (8-0)? Or will Penn State prove to a nationally televised audience (ABC, 11 a.m.) and a sellout crowd at TCF Stadium that the Gophers are not quite ready for elite status among NCAA Division I powers?

One thing is certain. The Gophers, under the direction of energetic head coach P.J. Fleck, have captured the attention of college football followers around the country. In just his third season with the Gophers, Fleck has built a program that people are talking about.

Here’s how far the Gophers’ program has come leading up to one of the most anticipated games in the 2019 season: national college football writers and TV analysts have been mentioning the Gophers in the same sentence with top-ranked LSU (8-0) and No. 2 Alabama (8-0).

No, the experts are not saying the Gophers have become as good as LSU and Alabama, who face each other Saturday afternoon in an SEC showdown in Tuscaloosa, Ala. They are saying that the Gophers-Penn State game is one of the two best matchups in the country this weekend, and many college football followers will be watching before turning their attention later in the afternoon to LSU-Alabama.

“If this was not LSU-Alabama week, this by far would be the marquee game of the weekend,” ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit said of the Gophers-Penn State game on ESPN’s “Golic & Wingo” show Thursday morning.

ESPN gave serious consideration to bringing its “College Football GameDay” show to Minneapolis to preview the Gophers-Penn State game. Fleck made a public plea to ESPN and sent the network a letter in an attempt to convince management to bring “GameDay” to Minneapolis. When the nation’s top two teams are battling, two teams with enough talent to fill up the first two rounds of the NFL draft, it’s easy to understand ESPN’s position to send its “GameDay” crew to Tuscaloosa instead of Minneapolis.

ESPN’s decision makes Saturday’s game even more critical for the Gophers. A win over Penn State will likely bring “GameDay” to town for a future home game this season, but more importantly, a win Saturday will validate the Gophers as a legitimate program on the rise. The Gophers are 8-0 for the first time since 1941 and 5-0 in the Big Ten Conference for the first time since 1961.

“Minnesota could definitely help their cause by beating Penn State,” Herbstreit said. “If they keep winning, they could end up in the Big Ten championship game. A lot of people nationally don’t know about P.J. Fleck and (Gophers quarterback) Tanner Morgan, but they will now.”

No previous Gophers football coach has been able to generate this kind of national attention and recognition for the program. Fleck has done it with a vibrant personality and skillful recruiting. At least 77 players on the roster are from states with strong traditions for high school talent — Georgia, Ohio, Texas, Florida, Michigan, Louisiana and Illinois.

The talent upgrade has helped Fleck separate himself from the Gophers’ previous four head coaches. In less than three seasons, Fleck’s 10 wins in the Big Ten is more than Jerry Kill (eight), Tim Brewster (six) Glen Mason (eight) and Jim Wacker (six) compiled after their first three seasons with the Gophers.

If you sense an upswing with the Gophers program, you’re not alone. More than 50,000 fans are expected to warm up TCF Stadium on what is projected to be a near-freezing day. If the Gophers remain hot, that chill in the air will barely be noticeable.

Ray Richardson can be reached at rayrich@kmojfm.com