There are two ways to look at the season the Minnesota football team had in 2016.
The optimist will tell you the Golden Gophers, who finished with a good-but-not-great 8-4 record, were a couple of plays away from being in the College Football Playoffs conversation. And they would be right.
Minnesota, which faces Washington State in the Holiday Bowl on Tuesday, did not lose a game by more than a touchdown until the regular-season finale on the road at No. 6 Wisconsin. And the Golden Gophers held a fourth-quarter lead in that game.
They played good teams close — all that outrage over Penn State not making the playoffs was on behalf of a team that beat Minnesota by three points at home. And the Golden Gophers did what they had to against the bad teams, winning by an average of 14.8 points during a four-game surge against Big Ten opponents.
But pessimists have some points, too.
Minnesota did not beat a ranked team in 2016 and benefited from a Big Ten schedule bereft of conference heavyweights Michigan and Ohio State. The Golden Gophers squeaked past Oregon State in the season opener, and they beat Rutgers (2-10, 0-9 Big Ten) by two points.
Minnesota is ranked outside the top 30 in scoring offense and scoring defense, never establishing an identity outside of a pretty decent pass defense, which recently lost multiple key players to suspensions.
And there’s the whole player walkout issue that clouded the team’s thinking over last week.
The Golden Gophers won eight games and qualified for a bowl game. But were they good in 2016? That’s in the eye of the beholder. A closer look at their schedule:
Sept. 1, vs. Oregon State
The Gophers hung on, despite three ejections, thanks to 125 rushing yards and two scores from Rodney Smith.
Final: Minnesota, 30-23
Sept. 10, vs. Indiana State
Mitch Leidner tossed four touchdown passes, two to Drew Wolitarsky, as Minnesota cruised to an easy win.
Final: Minnesota, 58-28
Sept. 24, vs. Colorado State
Smith and Shannon Brooks combined to rush for 184 yards and three touchdowns as the Gophers wore down the Rams late.
Final: Minnesota, 31-24
Oct. 1, at Penn State
Minnesota narrowly lost its first road test as Penn State’s Saquon Barkley scored on a 25-yard run on the Nittany Lions’ first offensive play of overtime. Penn State was unranked at the time, but the team and Barkley’s success became major stories.
Final: Penn State, 29-26 (OT)
Oct. 8, vs. Iowa
Neither offense could score easily in this grinder until Iowa’s Akrum Wadley went 54 yards for a touchdown late in the fourth quarter.
Final: Iowa, 14-7
Oct. 15, at Maryland
Leidner was out with a concussion, so Conor Rhoda made his first start at quarterback for Minnesota. He did not have to do much, since Smith ran for 144 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Final: Minnesota, 31-10
Oct. 22, vs. Rutgers
The Golden Gophers came perilously close to being Rutgers’ first Big Ten win in six attempts, surviving thanks to Emmitt Carpenter’s 28-yard field goal with 10 seconds left.
Final: Minnesota, 34-32
Oct. 29, at Illinois
Illinois turned the ball over twice early, Minnesota followed with scores, and the Golden Gophers cruised to a third straight win.
Final: Minnesota, 40-17
Nov. 5, vs. Purdue
Smith ran for three touchdowns and Leidner added two more rushing scores as the Golden Gophers’ offense romped.
Final: Minnesota, 44-31
Nov. 12, at No. 19 Nebraska
The Golden Gophers came up short in their first game against a ranked opponent. Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. came back from an injury to lead a 91-yard winning drive.
Final: Nebraska, 24-17
Nov. 19, vs. Northwestern
Leidner threw his first touchdown pass in seven weeks as the Golden Gophers won their last home game.
Final: Minnesota, 29-12
Nov. 26, at No. 6 Wisconsin
The Golden Gophers played well and entered the fourth quarter with a lead, but the Badgers outscored Minnesota, 21-0, in the final quarter to hand the visitors their first double-digit loss all year.
Final: Wisconsin, 31-17