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John Shipley: Gophers appear to be the cream of Big Ten’s ‘fun size’ division

The East has all the ranked teams but the West should be wild, with Minnesota in the hunt for its first Big Ten title of any sort since 1967

NCAA Football: Colorado at Minnesota
Members of the Minnesota Golden Gophers celebrate a win against the Colorado Buffaloes after the game at Huntington Bank Stadium on Sept. 17, 2022.
Matt Krohn / USA Today Sports
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It was the Mars candy company that first came up with the brilliant idea of calling its small chocolate bars “fun size,” a brilliant campaign to convince its customers that something worse is actually better, or at least more enjoyable.

Mars actually tried to trademark “fun size” to stop its competitors from telling their customers those mini-candy bars are, in fact, something not just to be ingested but to lift your spirits. And let’s face, if you buy Halloween candy, those are what you’re bringing back from Target.

Because they’re fun.

Mars, incidentally, in a victory for the First Amendment and American jurisprudence, failed in its bid to trademark the word “fun,” which brings us to a ripe marketing opportunity for the Big Ten. The conference’s West Football Division, an amalgam of seven programs generally happy to go to a bowl game, isn’t mediocre — or this year, you know, terrible. It’s fun!

The West isn’t the lesser Big Ten Division, it’s fun size, not as big or filling as the East and its unbeaten college football royalty – No. 3 Ohio State, No. 4 Michigan and No. 22 Penn State remained unbeaten on Saturday — but maybe more enjoyable to ingest. If you add No. 11 Michigan State, Minnesota’s opponent next weekend in East Lansing, all of the Big Ten’s ranked teams are in the East.


After Minnesota’s thorough yet thoroughly dull 49-7 victory over a woeful Colorado program on Saturday at Huntington Bank Stadium, the Gophers (3-0) are the only unbeaten team in the West. The team’s prospects are more exciting than the way it got here, outsourcing three struggling programs 149-17.

How dull was Saturday’s game? When it was paused in the middle of the fourth quarter for officials to review a targeting call – well past the three-hour mark – a little birdie saw an ESPN2 executive point at her watch and say, “We’ve got cornhole ready to go, people.”

It was so dull that the student section, which filled in nicely at kickoff, just about emptied after the Gophers scored a touchdown on a 16-yard, fourth-down touchdown pass from Tanner Morgan to Dylan Wright for a 35-0 halftime lead. The game, for all intents and purposes, was over, and with the outcome sealed, the students were free to get a jump on their homework.

After a nonconference schedule comprising Colorado, FCS also-ran Western Illinois and New Mexico State — quite possibly the worst team in Division I football — it’s difficult to gauge the Gophers’ mettle. But it’s also not much of a stretch to wonder whether they are the best team in the Big Ten West.

Victory marked first time Minnesota won in East Lansing since 2009
The 27-point win over the Spartans was Minnesota's closest game this season.
Minnesota travels to Michigan State to open up Big Ten play on Saturday
Minnesota is collecting data on how much players are exerting on the field and when they might be on the verge of an injury
Minnesota (3-0) heads into the Big Ten opener against Michigan State (2-1) at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Mich.
Autman-Bell accounted for 23% of the Gophers’ targets through 3 weeks
Geary will be part of a group of wideouts asked to step up as No. 1 pass-catching target Chris Autman-Bell was lost to a season-ending leg injury against the Buffaloes.
In the first half of Saturday’s 49-7 victory over Colorado, Autman-Bell landed awkwardly after trying to adjust to an off-target throw from Tanner Morgan. Visibly distraught, Autman-Bell needed assistance to leave the field and went to a hospital for further tests.
Minnesota has been all business against three incredibly weak programs: arguably the worst Division I outfit in New Mexico State, a rebuilding FCS team in Western Illinois and possibly the worst Power Five program in Pac-12 member Colorado. Those three teams are a combined 0-10 this season.
Gophers have outscored their opponents 149-17 through 3 games

Certainly they haven’t been embarrassed, which you can’t say about their West companeros. Northwestern lost to a previously winless FCS team on Saturday, and ostensibly up-and-coming Purdue dropped a close game at perennially OK Syracuse. Nebraska already has fired its coach, and Iowa is finally getting serious about Kirk Ferentz’s theory that you can win the West without scoring a touchdown.

Even Wisconsin, which had pretty well ensconced itself as the cream of the division, already has a home loss to second-division Pac-12 team Washington State.

P.J. Fleck’s program has been steadily improving since he arrived in January 2017, and with recent big-stage victories over Penn State, Wisconsin and Auburn, his teams have proven they can rise to an occasion. Well, here is an occasion. You’d better believe they know it, too.

The Gophers’ road to their first Big Ten football title of any sort since 1967 isn’t without obstacles, but from here they all appear surmountable. Minnesota hasn’t beaten a team you could, with a straight face, call good yet, but the Gophers did to them what good teams do.


Next week’s Big Ten opener against No. 11 Michigan State, in East Lansing, will go a long way toward telling us how good Minnesota really is, or can be this season.

“One of the best teams in the Big Ten, one of the best teams in the country,” Fleck said – and, well, maybe. That East Division is loaded. But how much fun will it be?

It seems all but certain the division championship will come down to the annual Michigan-Ohio State game on Nov. 26. It usually does. But the Wild, Wild West? It doesn’t have any ranked programs but heaven only knows what will happen between the lines when these teams meet in conference play starting next weekend?

Every weekend is a crapshoot, and maybe three or four teams have a chance to win it all, including Minnesota.

The Big Ten West. It’s not terrible, it’s fun. It’s not weak, it’s wild.

Strap in.


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