Gophers are better, but are they 'for real'?

Updated: October 16, 2003, 6:03 PM ET

MINNEAPOLIS -- It shouldn't take this long.

Seven games into the 2003 season, and it's still nearly impossible to tell whether this year's Gopher football team is -- as they say -- "for real."

It takes a lot more than being bowl-eligible to prove that a team is worthy of a bowl game. Technically, Minnesota became the first team in the country to become bowl-eligible when the Gophers hammered mediocre Northwestern two weeks ago.

And there's little doubt they can get to some cheesy bowl game in a couple of months.

But there's still plenty of doubt whether they're "for real" enough to be in San Antonio (Alamo), Tampa (Outback), Orlando (Capital One) or even, dare we say, Pasadena (Rose).

Right now, they still haven't convinced me that they deserve more than El Paso (Sun), Nashville (Music City) or Detroit (Motor City).

Are they a better team than they were a year ago? Absolutely. After that, it's anyone's guess.

"I knew that we would be better and we are better," coach Glen Mason said.

"But at the same time, every one of those coaches in our league was saying the same thing. ... 'We're going to be a better football team.' So then it's who's better than whom? We have more ground to make up than some of those people."

And that's Mason talking.

Yes, it's still early to be speculating about who will be playing in what bowl. But it's also a little late to still not know how good these Gophers are.

Michigan was supposed to be the measuring stick.

"This is what you live for, you live to play against teams like Michigan," quarterback Asad Abdul-Khaliq said before the game. "It's going to be even bigger to show that Minnesota's for real."

Well, the game came and went. And I, for one, still have no idea if Minnesota's "for real."

It would have been easy to tell if they were "for real," if they would've, say, held onto that 21-point lead in the fourth quarter and not allowed the Wolverines to pull off that amazing rally. That would've qualified as "for real."

And it would have been easy to tell if they were NOT "for real" if they would've, say, given up 30 points off turnovers, finished with negative yards rushing and gotten blown out by 50 points.

But it's never that cut and dried. And the way that game went down left me with only one conclusion: I still don't have one.

There are good arguments for both sides.

--For real: The Gophers played three of the most impressive quarters they've played in years. The defense harassed Michigan quarterback John Navarre, knocking the earpiece out of his helmet on one occasion, and played admirably against the Wolverines receivers. On offense, Abdul-Khaliq wasn't exactly Joe Montana in the air, but Marion Barber III and the rest of the running backs made up for it by tearing up the artificial turf. All signs pointed to "for real."

--NOT for real: They stalled and gave up 31 points in the fourth quarter. 'Nuff said.

So which side wins?

Yes, they ultimately lost by three points and dropped another important game. But try as you might, it would be unfair to completely overlook those first three quarters when we saw just how good this Minnesota squad can be.

Yet they also felt the need to remind us just how bad they can be in that fourth quarter.

So what's it going to be, guys?

I'll say it again: The season is more than halfway through and it's still too hard to tell where these Gophers stand. And the fact that they padded their 6-1 record against another group of nonconference patsies doesn't make the argument any clearer.

The good news is that this weekend's streaking opponent, No. 15 Michigan State, just might be a tougher draw than the Wolverines.

That makes now as good a time as any for Goldy's Gophers to give the selection committees an idea where they belong.

Enough with the speculation. Show us something.

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Andres Ybarra can be reached at aybarra(at)ap.org.

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index