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Gophers bring back the New Year's party

12/28/2014
Jerry Kill has Minnesota in a New Year's Day bowl game for the first time in 53 years. Trevor Ruszkowski/USA TODAY Sports

The last time Minnesota played in a New Year's Day bowl game, John F. Kennedy was wrapping up his first year in office, gas cost 28 cents per gallon and no one had yet heard of the Beatles.

The Gophers' 21-3 win over UCLA in the 1962 Rose Bowl was the first national broadcast of a college football game in that newfangled technology of color TV. Perhaps rising ad executive Don Draper watched it.

Yes, it's been a long wait to get back to New Year's Day -- 53 years, to be exact. So you can understand why No. 25 Minnesota has been so anxiously anticipating about its Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl matchup against No. 16 Missouri.

"It's tangible," senior defensive lineman Cameron Botticelli said. "When you walked into our indoor practice facility [earlier this month], you could feel it, smell it, taste it. There's excitement in the air."

The significance of a New Year's Day bowl has changed over the years, especially with the proliferation of postseason games and as major games creeped later into January in recent times. But with the advent of the College Football Playoff, Jan. 1 has become a milestone date again, and the Gophers are thrilled to be a part of the special day.

"I still think with kids that means something, to be playing on January 1," head coach Jerry Kill said. "It's a mindset, a tradition. You know you're playing in a prestigious bowl."

Minnesota fans have responded. The school had sold more than 7,600 tickets from its official allotment to the Citrus Bowl as of Sunday, according to a team spokesman. That's more tickets than the Gophers sold in their past two bowl games combined and more than twice as many who bought seats through the school for last year's Texas Bowl. The contingent includes six busloads of students who are making the more than 24-hour journey to Orlando, and there's a waiting list for a spot on that convoy.

This is the program's first trip to Florida for a bowl since the 2000 MicronPC game in Miami. Minnesota spent the past two seasons in Houston at the Texas Bowl and played on New Year's Eve in Phoenix at the 2008 and 2009 Insight Bowls. Kill and his staff recruit Florida heavily.

"I don't think there's any question that visibility in Florida is important to us," Kill said.

Last year's Texas Bowl was held on Dec. 27. While playing five days later may not seem like much, the New Year's Day spot allowed the players to have more of a break earlier this month to concentrate on finals before returning to practice. And they were able to get home for Christmas Eve instead of celebrating the holiday with their teammates in some hotel ballroom. Players also gained a little more time to heal their bumps and bruises after playing some physical games down the stretch of the regular season against the likes of Ohio State, Nebraska and Wisconsin.

The Gophers were disappointed to come up just short in their bid to win the Big Ten West, and they don't want that feeling after another bowl game. Following last year's 21-17 loss to Syracuse in the Texas Bowl, Kill told his players that they should be "starving" for more success. That helped push the team throughout the offseason and toward this year's 8-4 record.

"It's nice to be a part of history," Botticelli said. "Whether we win or lose, we'll be the team that played in a Jan. 1 bowl for the first time in 53 years. However, it's important to remember, history remembers winners. We want to win and be remembered as winners

That's the fire that drives our preparation."

They'll get a chance to measure up against the SEC East Division champion in Missouri, which shouldn't be intimidating since the Gophers have already played TCU and Ohio State this season. A win would allow Minnesota to finish the season ranked for the first time since 2003.

"We got some bricks moving forward this season," Kill said. "Certainly, winning the bowl game would be a huge one."

Especially so if it happened on New Year's Day.