Minneapolis — The college football spotlight this weekend has been aimed at Alabama, where LSU’s visit will mark the first regular-season meeting of the top two teams in the Associated Press poll since those same teams played eight years ago.
There is quite the undercard on the schedule, too, another matchup of unbeaten teams that will be staged, believe it or not, in Minnesota: When No. 5 Penn State visits TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday, No. 13 Minnesota will take part for the first time in 15 years in a game with both sides ranked in the top 15.
“You’ve got P.J. Fleck in his third year trying to get these guys to really believe, ‘Hey, this is what we can do. You guys have bought into the offseason program, and we can win games, and now look at us. We’re undefeated, and we’re playing Penn State, and everybody’s talking about us. This is who we are. This is your new Minnesota,’” said ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit, before raving about James Franklin’s six seasons of work reviving a longtime power: “Penn State’s brand is back.”
The outcome will have a significant impact on the Big Ten championship chase. The Nittany Lions (8-0, 5-0, No. 4 CFP) are tied with Ohio State for first place in the East Division two weeks ahead of a showdown against the Buckeyes, and the Golden Gophers (8-0, 5-0, No. 17 CFP) have a two-game lead on Iowa and Wisconsin in the West Division with the Hawkeyes and Badgers facing each other on Saturday.
The College Football Playoff field will be influenced, too, with Penn State landing in the top four in the first edition of the rankings. True to form for their profession, however, Fleck and Franklin have each taken the one-game-at-a-time mentality to the extreme, insisting on the isolated goal of going 1-0 this week.
“It just takes a lot of stress off you,” Penn State running back Journey Brown said. “You don’t have to worry about the future. You don’t have to worry about what happened before. You focus on what’s coming up.”
The Nittany Lions, whose last national championship was in 1986, have yet to be selected for the four-team playoff. They won the Big Ten title in 2016, though, presenting the Gophers a program to strive for.
“We’re on our way to building that in terms of restoring our tradition from the past to the present,” Fleck said, later adding: “You earned the right for a big game because of what you’ve done. The only way to continue to have that is keep having success in these big games, big moments.”
Despite his status at a prominent program, Franklin’s name often lands on the speculative lists of candidates for vacancies, real or expected, that emerge with other powers around the country. Florida State became the latest example, after the recent firing there. Franklin slyly steered the subject at his news conference this week toward his counterpart and friend, Fleck, who also surfaced as a person of interest for the Seminoles.
“I’ve also heard P.J.’s name mentioned a bunch, so you guys could spend a lot of time calling him and talking to him,” Franklin said.
Fleck signed a contract extension through 2026 about two hours later.
“What we’re building here, it’s just really exciting,” quarterback Tanner Morgan said.
Minnesota has outscored conference foes 206-72 and posted 28 points or more in all eight games, the first such streak by the Gophers since 1904 when they still had high school teams on the schedule. Penn State has allowed just 77 points, the second-fewest in the FBS.
Penn State at Minnesota
Kickoff: Noon Saturday, TCF Bank Stadium, Minneapolis
Records: No. 5 Penn State 8-0, 5-0 Big Ten; No. 13 Minnesota 8-0, 5-0
Line: Penn State by 6½