Minnesota set to face Syracuse in the Texas Bowl

MINNEAPOLIS — The Gophers are going back to Texas.

For the second straight year, the University of Minnesota football team will be playing its bowl game in Houston when they take part in the Texas Bowl on Dec. 27. The 8-4 Gophers will face Syracuse, which eked out a three-point win against Boston College in the season finale to become bowl eligible.

The Texas Bowl is the same game Minnesota played in last year, although it was called the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas. The Gophers lost that game to Texas Tech.

While Minnesota was hoping for a spot in the Gator Bowl — one notch above the Texas Bowl — it will instead head back to Houston. But third-year head coach Jerry Kill didn’t seem as concerned about which game his team played in as long as it earns a bowl game victory.

“I look at it as a great opportunity,” said Kill, who has improved Minnesota’s record from 3-9 to 6-7 to 8-4 in his first three seasons. “We have a great opportunity to compete and to continue to make history with the team. Winning nine games is important to us. Winning a bowl game’s important to us.”

The school announced Sunday that fans can purchase tickets to the bowl game at MyGopherSports.com. That website will also include bowl trip packages beginning on Monday.

Minnesota began the year 4-0 in nonconference play before losing its first two Big Ten games. The Gophers then won four in a row against Northwestern, Nebraska, Indiana and Penn State to improve to 8-2 but lost their final two regular-season games to finish 8-4.

As one of the surprise teams in college football, Minnesota seemed destined for a better postseason fate than it had last year. Yet Kill noted that because Ohio State was eligible for a bowl game this year after a postseason ban last year, the Gophers are actually in a better standing than they were a year ago.

Still, there was a bit of disappointment among the players that their eight-win season didn’t earn them a spot in a slightly better game.

“If people feel that way, then we can go into this game with a chip on our shoulder and make sure that people know for this team next year that this team needs to be taken seriously,” said senior defensive back Brock Vereen.

At the same time, there are some positives for Minnesota in going back to the same bowl game. The Gophers are familiar with the city and with Reliant Stadium, as well as the high school field they practiced on a year ago. That familiarity is something Syracuse won’t have when the Orange head south to Texas.

Kill also noted the benefit of playing in this game from a television standpoint. The Texas Bowl will be broadcast nationally on ESPN and is the only game on Dec. 27 during that time slot. That means more eyes — and more recruits — watching the Gophers play.

“All this coverage and Lou Holtz making fun of me dancing and having fun, all that stuff, it helps recruiting because you’re on the national stage,” Kill said. “It’s helped our program. It’s also helped our university and helped our state because you can’t put a price on what that coverage is, just like this.”

These two teams aren’t complete strangers to each other. Minnesota hosted Syracuse last season at TCF Bank Stadium, with the Gophers earning a 17-10 win over the Orange. This year’s Syracuse team is led by a new head coach, Scott, Shafer, who has been on staff since 2009 and was the team’s defensive coordinator last year.

As for Kill, he said Sunday he wasn’t sure if he’ll return to the sideline for Minnesota’s bowl game. Kill watched the Gophers’ final six regular-season games from the press box after he announced he would take time away from the team to focus on treatment for his epilepsy.

“I don’t know. I haven’t worried too much about that,” Kill said. “I’ll see where things are going and at. I think whatever we do is going to be best for the team. I’m doing well, feeling well. All those things are good. We’ll just see how things work out.”

Even if the Texas Bowl isn’t necessarily the bowl game Minnesota had hoped for, the Gophers can still put the cherry on top of an impressive season by beating Syracuse. It’s likely that Minnesota will be favored in the game, something that didn’t happen much during the regular season. The Gophers embraced that underdog mentality all year and used it to improve from six wins last year to eight this year.

Nine wins would sound even better.

“No matter where we went, we knew this was going to be an opportunity to get a ninth win,” Vereen said. “That’s definitely the opportunity that’s up front for us. We have a month to prepare. It’s time to go get it.”

Follow Tyler Mason on Twitter