In a wild day of college football action, Minnesota turned the Big Ten upside down with a convincing 31-26 victory over the Penn State Nittany Lions. It was a commanding performance, as quarterback Tanner Morgan passed for 326 yards, upending one of the nation's stingiest defenses.
By most likely ending the playoff hopes of the nation's fourth-ranked team in the CFP standings, P.J. Fleck's Gophers have finally convinced us to examine them on a national level. With three games remaining, Minnesota is on pace for a trip to the Big Ten Championship Game, and a win there - presumably against Ohio State - would certainly lock them into the Playoff.
The remainder of Minnesota's schedule is no picnic. Two games against nationally-ranked conference foes Iowa and Wisconsin - the former on the road - sandwich an easily-winnable road encounter against Northwestern. However, given the downward trend of both the Hawkeyes and Badgers, both of whom also had outside shots at the Playoff before running into losing streaks, the red-hot Gophers have to be considered favorites in both.
The Minnesota team we saw on Saturday has steadily improved over the season, and are a far cry from the team that barely escaped embarrassing losses in their first three games against the likes of San Diego State, Fresno State, and Georgia Southern. Their slate of conference opponents up until the Penn State game hasn't been the most difficult, but they've made the most of their opportunities, earning four straight blowout wins at one stage - including a 23-point win over an Illinois team which just clinched bowl eligibility.
Behind Morgan and his top receiver duo of Rashod Bateman and Tyler Johnson, both of whom tore through the Penn State secondary for a combined 307 receiving yards on Saturday, the Gophers have the top scoring offense in their division with 338 points - four more than Playoff-ranked Penn State. Minnesota's own secondary features a projected first-round pick in Antoine Winfield Jr., who has more than double the number of interceptions as the next leading player in the Big Ten with seven.
Minnesota's win over Penn State proved that it can come through in the toughest situations. The next three games will serve as a litmus test, and if there's one thing this season has taught is, it's that no team is invulnerable. Minnesota taught Penn State this lesson, and it must be certain not to let any of their final three opponents do the same to them.