A division title is a long shot, but Minnesota and Northwestern still have plenty on the line
Technically, both teams still have a chance to win the division.
It would take a fairly hefty amount of assistance – OK, maybe a complete collapse in the B1G West – but Minnesota and Northwestern aren’t out of that race just yet. One will be knocked out this weekend for sure. Depending on what happens with Nebraska, Wisconsin and Iowa, both teams may be eliminated by the end of the day.
Let’s not focus on that, though. Instead, we can assume the division won’t implode and take a look at what’s realistically at stake for the Gophers and the Wildcats entering Week 12.
The next two weeks are huge for Tracy Claeys, who could be coaching for a contract extenstion – maybe even his job – for the remainder of the year.
Claeys stepped in as head coach when Jerry Kill resigned last season and was awarded with a three-year contract beginning this fall. It seemed like an agreement that would allow the former defensive coordinator adequate time to prove he was the one best suited for the job.
But things have changed.
Claeys’ future with the program waded into murky water when Minnesota hired Mark Coyle in May as the athletic director. Usually they want to bring in their guy to head the football program. That’s not the case with the Golden Gophers. And with the buyout being just $500,000, the dollars and cents to have as much of an impact as they might elsewhere.
A win over Northwestern greatly helps Claeys’ cause. It will guarantee at least eight wins for the Gophers, a mark the head coach spouted his team would reach following spring practices in May, and would be tough for Coyle to make any changes – if he wanted to – following an eight-win year.
Losing to Northwestern on Saturday, though, makes the future bleaker. Closing out the season against Wisconsin, it’s possible Minnesota would drop its final three games of the year and end 7-5. That’s an uncomfortable finish for a team that had just two losses and was in complete control of its own destiny a few weeks ago.
Winning a bowl game would still get the Gophers to eight wins – and again, reaching the mark Claeys said this team could – but it would put a little more pressure on Coyle.
Job security isn’t an issue in Evanston. With a pair of 10-win seasons and six bowl appearances in a decade, Pat Fitzgerald could likely endure an 0-12 season without any talks of a hot seat ever swirling. But, the Wildcats do have something on the line heading into Saturday, as well.
Northwestern is hoping to get to the eight-win mark this season, a feat that would require victories in its final three contests. Fitzgerald hasn’t posted eight or more wins in consecutive seasons since 2008 (9-4) and 2009 (8-5). In 2012, the Wildcats finished 10-3 only to follow it up with back-to-back five-win campaigns. They’re hoping to avoid that same fate this year.
Eight wins didn’t seem likely at the beginning of the season. Northwestern lost its first two contests to Western Michigan and Illinois State and looked as inept offensively as any team in the country.
The Wildcats have turned things around, though.
Clayton Thorson has found a rhythm. In seven conference games, the sophomore quarterback has thrown 15 TDs with just six INTs while completing passes at a 60 percent clip. His favorite target, Austin Carr, leads the B1G in receiving with over 1,100 yards and 12 TDs. And don’t forget about highly-touted running back Justin Jackson, who eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark after last week’s game at Purdue for the third-straight year.
With Northwestern’s fine-tuned offense, the eight-win mark is well within reach. Notching a win over the Gophers and clinching bowl eligibility is the first step.
Basically, this week boils down to eight wins.
It’s easy for Minnesota, a win on Saturday and they’ve locked up that mark for the third time in four seasons. A loss doesn’t make it impossible to reach but it certainly puts a damper on those hopes.
Northwestern would still have some work to do, but beating Minnesota would almost ensure they exit the regular season with seven wins, closing out the year against Illinois.
There is potentially more on the line for Claeys and Minnesota than Northwestern. It’s hard to argue against that. But the importance of this game won’t be overlooked by either program. Bowl eligibility and job security are at stake. Those are some pretty big implications.
And hey, for what it’s worth, the winner could still have an outside shot to win the West.