From a distance, Minnesota's upcoming appearance in the Insight Bowl looks like a swing game for an inconsistent team.Chris Gardner/Getty Images
Minnesota coach Tim Brewster's Gophers need a victory in the Insight Bowl for a winning season.
At 6-6, the Golden Gophers can secure a winning season and their first bowl victory since 2004 by knocking off Iowa State on Dec. 31 in Tempe, Ariz. (NFL Network, 6 p.m. ET). A victory almost certainly would mean some kind of contract extension for head coach Tim Brewster, who has two years remaining on his current deal.
A Minnesota loss to the Cyclones would bring a very different sentiment. The Gophers would drop to 6-7, certainly well short of preseason expectations. They lose a large group of seniors, including all three starting linebackers, both starting defensive tackles and, of course, star wideout Eric Decker (injured for the bowl). And Brewster's future could be murky.
Though the coach remains confident a contract extension will happen, Minnesota athletics director Joel Maturi has been somewhat non-committal about Brewster and the future. Earlier this month, Maturi said he wouldn't stop Brewster from pursuing other jobs, and he will evaluate everything after the bowl game. Keep in mind that Minnesota isn't afraid to dump a coach after a bowl, as it fired Glen Mason after the team collapsed in the 2006 Insight Bowl against Texas Tech.
Brewster is 14-23 in three years at the U and just 6-18 in Big Ten play.
So is the Insight Bowl a make-or-break game for Minnesota and Brewster?
"Winning football games is what we're all paid to do and what we're all here for, and this game's no different than that," Brewster told me Wednesday. "Our expectation level is to win. I feel real good about the progress of our program, where we're at from Year 1 to Year 2 and Year 2 to Year 3. I don't think one game is going to determine the course of where we're going.
"The course is set."
Whether Maturi sees things the same way remains to be seen. Brewster has recruited well to Minnesota, and he's excited about the potential of young players like tight end Ra'Shede Hageman, linebacker Brent Singleton and defensive ends Matt Garin and Kendall Gregory-McGhee.
But he came to Minneapolis talking about Big Ten championships, and at least in wins and losses, the Gophers aren't closer than they were under Mason.
"If you study it, there's very few coaches that have taken a team they inherited and gone to two bowl games in their first three years, very few," he said. "Obviously, recruiting's a huge part of it and we've really got some outstanding young players in the program. It's just exciting to see the youth and the athleticism and the speed.
"Those are the guys who are going to help lead us to where want to go."
Guys like Hageman, Singleton, Garin and Gregory-McGhee will be in larger roles next fall, and Brewster deserves another shot to coach them. But the bar will be set higher than 6-6, and a win Dec. 31 would get the program headed in the right direction.
"You're just developing a program, and it's working," Brewster said. "We want to build a championship-caliber program, a team that has a chance to compete for a championship. And as we all know, that takes some time. But I'm really pleased with the progress that we're making, and this will be another opportunity, New Year' Eve, to continue to establish the course in which we want to go."