GameDay: Snow, P.J. Fleck, Eric Decker and a whole lot of great signs

ESPN’s College GameDay has been visiting campuses for more than a quarter-century, but Saturday was the first time the revered show had ever been to the University of Minnesota.

It was nice of Mother Nature to pretty much write the script for how the show would play out visually.

The three-hour broadcast from 8-11 a.m. Saturday illustrated the elements – as expected and as it should – after a fresh round of late November snow left Northrop Mall looking like a gorgeous winter wonderland.

Fans rowed a boat in the snow early in the show, before there was a cut to a snow-covered TCF Bank Stadium.

Soon, we were back on Northrop Mall looking at shirtless guys (one of whom had an axe shaved into his chest hair) – and my two young daughters were cackling and yelling at the TV for them to put their shirts back on. And then we saw a snowman with a large thermometer hung from it.

The on-camera talent was bundled up – though host Rece Davis eschewed gloves. If they were uncomfortable, they tried not to show it or talk about it. Kirk Herbstreit and Lee Corso commended the fans for their “bring it on” mentality when it came to the weather.

Those fans brought signs. So many signs. Among the ones that were most visible in the background of the set: “Fleck the Badgers,” “Badgers are just fat skunks,” “Badgers eat yellow snow,” “GameDay is now Elite,” “If you don’t row you better axe somebody” and the deadpan “Never been this good, don’t know what to write.”

There were a lot more that were somewhere between too obscure and too inappropriate to print – which meant they were perfect for GameDay.

Fans chanted “Row the Boat” and – strangely – “who hates Iowa/we hate Iowa.” At least that’s something about which Minnesota and Wisconsin could agree.

Of course, GameDay is about more than the live shots. Tons of features were worked into the Rivalry Week edition of the show, including a long one on Gophers coach P.J. Fleck and how he has built up the program here.

Fleck later appeared live on the show talking about the Gophers more – and explaining once again the meaning of “Row the Boat.” He was joined by Timberwolves coach Ryan Saunders – a Minnesota alum, Gophers fan and good friend of Fleck.

Fleck said in the leadup to Saturday: “I’d like to be able to have the largest crowd GameDay has ever seen somehow, some way.” That sort of thing is hard to quantify, but the throng on TV looked quite impressive and was often lauded by the crew.

The show worked in an obligatory shot of Mall of America and also a slightly more subtle Minnesota touch by coming back from break early in the 9 a.m. hour playing “Juice” by red-hot artist Lizzo.

Oh, yeah, there was plenty of football talk as well. Herbstreit asserted that if the Gophers beat the Badgers and Ohio State, they will make the College Football Playoff.

And former Gophers wide receiver Eric Decker joined as the celebrity guest picker, bursting out of a building on campus to a hero’s welcome. Decker’s Gophers never beat the Badgers, but his optimistic energy seemed to match that of the crowd.

“Minnesota is taking this thing home!” Decker declared after picking the Gophers to win — cheers surpassed only when Corso donned the Goldy Gopher head after also saying Minnesota would win.

Then it was over, leading to the best question of the day: What does one do for 3.5 hours to sustain the buzz of GameDay before the biggest game on campus in more than a half-century?

Local sports holiday shopping list: One axe, Rhodes closed and more

Are you snowed in? Worried that you won’t make it out this weekend for all the hottest black Friday shopping deals? Don’t worry — I’ve got all of the best gift ideas right here for the Minnesota sports team in your life.

Gophers football — a decent Saturday forecast, a shiny axe … and a small fortune (for the fans): Minnesota’s biggest edge over the Badgers in Saturday’s massive game comes on offense — specifically the Gophers’ excellent run-pass mix, with playmakers all around in both cases. The forecast Saturday looks grim, with a lot of snow and rain. Being able to throw the ball will be the key to retaining the axe, with a win almost certainly ensuring the Gophers of no worse than a Rose Bowl berth (yes, I really typed that).

Looking for last-minute tickets? They’re over $200 for the cheapest ones on StubHub, and the trip to Pasadena everyone is dreaming of will set you back even more.

Vikings — A return to Rhodes closed: It’s strange to say this based on recent history and all the investments the Vikings have made there, but one of the shakiest parts of this year’s 8-3 team has been its pass defense. In Football Outsiders’ DVOA efficiency rankings, the Vikings are just 16th in pass defense this season (they were fifth and fourth the last two seasons, by comparison). There’s plenty of depth, but their three most-used corners (Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes and Mike Hughes) all have subpar coverage grades of 52.2 or worse per Pro Football Focus.

If the Vikings are serious about a deep playoff run, a return to the “Rhodes closed” status of past years will be key.

Twins — A frontline starting pitcher and a smooth transition: The Twins’ biggest personnel need is a top starting pitcher to vault them into more serious contention in October, but the biggest story line might be how the Twins withstand having key members of their field staff poached away. They already lost hitting coach James Rowson and assistant pitching coach Jeremy Hefner. Bench coach Derek Shelton could be next.

Wild — clarity: Since its awful 1-6 start, the Wild is 9-5-4. That 18-game pace extended over an entire season would translate to 100 points. So which Wild team is the real thing? Probably something in the middle, but GM Bill Guerin could sure use some clarity in determining how to move forward with this roster.

One thing that would help push the Wild toward contention: better goaltending. The Wild’s netminders have been underperforming relative to their expected save percentage for several years, including this season.

Wolves — a shooter or two: The Wolves have placed a premium on higher-efficiency shots, leading to way more three-pointers. Entering Wednesday, they are tied for third in the NBA at 39.5 attempts from beyond the arc par game. But they’re just 28th in three-point shooting percentage (31.7). That number figures to trend upward a little, but outside of Karl-Anthony Towns there isn’t really a pure three-point shooter on the team. It’s hard not to wonder how a this roster would look with a shooter or two added to the mix, particularly since the team is already 9-8 without shooting well.

Gophers men’s basketball — a clear identity: This is a big season for Richard Pitino’s Gophers, and the rest of the nonconference season should be about figuring out an identity and deciding what the Gophers do best.

Lynx — A Maya Moore resolution: Head coach/GM Cheryl Reeve did a nice job revamping the Lynx’s roster and playing style last season, getting Minnesota back to the playoffs even while Maya Moore took the year off. To really move forward, though, the Lynx need to know what Moore is doing in the long run.

Gophers men’s hockey — Faith in the future: The Gophers look like they are headed toward a third straight year without an NCAA tourney appearance. That has happened two other times in the last 25 years, and in both cases a resurgence has followed. Bob Motzko has a young team on the right track, and continued progress this season would yield confidence that faith in the future is justified.

Gophers women’s basketball — An NCAA tourney season: It feels like Lindsay Whalen could build a dynasty at Minnesota. But most teams need to walk before they run, and this year that would mean at least getting into the Big Dance.

Corner threes and OT woes: Wolves and Wild diverge on important night

When you are a team that even optimistic fans would decide is a fringe contender to make the playoffs at best, stealing edges in subtle places can be of massive importance.

That was on display in both positive and negative ways Tuesday for the Wolves (good) and Wild (bad), two teams that fall into the “fringe playoff contender” category.

*For the Wolves, their 125-113 victory at Atlanta was driven by a handful of factors — including the extension of a peculiar home-road split that has them 3-6 at Target Center but 6-2 away from home, with performances that match those records.

Drilling down a little more, though, we see one key area in which the Wolves were markedly improved Monday — thanks in part to the contributions of suddenly key forward Keita Bates-Diop.

In the victory, the Wolves went 5-for-7 (71%) on corner three-point attempts, including 2 of 3 by Bates-Diop — one of them by KBD being a big make with 3:24 left to extend the Wolves’ lead to 117-107.

For the season, the Wolves are still just 36 for 119 on corner 3s — and their 30.3% mark on those shots is tied for worst in the league. That’s significant because corner 3s are the shortest shots worth that much — 22 feet as opposed to 23 feet, 9 inches above the break, that spot on the court where the line changes from straight to an arc.

A team that is emphasizing three-point shooting and ball movement should get a ton of opportunities for corner threes, and the Wolves’ inability to knock them down this year has hindered their offense.

But Bates-Diop, the second-year player who started the year in the G League in Iowa but has been on the court lately, has shown in a small sample size that he might be a weapon in the corners. He’s 6 for 8 on corner threes this season (and just 1 of 10 on all other three-point attempts).

Now, this is where I point out that Bates-Diop was just 4 for 19 on corner threes as a rookie, but if that’s a skill he’s developing it will be a welcome sight for the Wolves given that none of their other wings besides Andrew Wiggins (38.5% from the corner this year) is above 33% and many are far below that mark.

*It’s possible, though, that you were either watching the Wild game or flipping back and forth between the Wild and Wolves last night. If so, you might have seen the other side of subtle edges.

Minnesota coughed up a late lead and went to overtime tied 2-2 at the Rangers. For most teams, that would still mean a reasonable chance to regroup and snag a win (and an extra point). For the Wild, overtime has been a nightmare.

Since the format changed to a 3-on-3 session for five minutes before the 2015-16 season, the Wild is a dismal 12-32 in overtime games. That is not a misprint.

The carnage started on Oct. 16, 2015 in a 2-1 overtime loss to the Kings. The three Wild skaters on the ice when L.A.’s Anze Kopitar scored the winner: Jason Pominville, Thomas Vanek and Marco Scandella.

The Wild has chased the right mix of players for the extra session as the years went on, but to open things Monday head coach Bruce Boudreau sent out forward Joel Eriksson Ek along with defensemen Ryan Suter and Jared Spurgeon. The aim was to gain possession and then switch to a more attacking three, but the Rangers ended things just 32 seconds into the frame.

Minnesota is now 0-4 in overtime this season, giving away valuable points just by failing to be even average. With just two wins in OT out of four, they’d be 11-11-2, clustered more with a group of wild card hopefuls instead of sitting with the second-fewest points in the West.

Twins baby blue throwbacks: Twitter loves ’em, Strib commenters hate ’em

The Twins on Monday announced the return of a baby blue uniform as an alternate look for 2020, patterned after the team’s primary road uniform worn from 1973-1986.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the whole thing: If you’re trying to figure out what people think of the baby blues, it completely depends on where you look.

As of 2:30 p.m. Monday, there were 69 comments on the Star Tribune story about the uniforms. I read each of them so you don’t have to, and of the 32 that specifically commented on the appearance of the uniforms the tally was this: 24 didn’t like them, often strongly; 7 did like them, often strong; 1 gave a confusing account of liking them once in a while for their ugliness. The words “ugh,” “worst,” “hate” and “yuck” were bandied about freely.

So basically three of every four Star Tribune commenters that took the time to voice an opinion about the subject of the story did not like the baby blues.

Also as of 2:30 p.m., there were 477 replies on the Twins’ official tweet from Monday morning announcing the return of the baby blues. I did NOT read every single one of them, but I looked at a representative sample big enough to convince me that the preference was basically flip-flopped: three of every four Twitter responses were in favor of the retro alternative look — with fans demanding that the Twins “take their money” for the “awesome,” “fire” and “best in the league” jerseys.

Now, you don’t have to watch much Fox News or MSNBC to know that a set of facts can be interpreted a variety of ways by different audiences, but can something as simple as a reaction to a jersey be swayed by such a thing?

In a word, that answer sure seems like “yes.” Here’s my partial attempt at an explanation as to why:

*Per this News Media Alliance piece from 2017, the average age of an online newspaper reader is 41. And the average age of a Twitter user is 34.

The average 34-year-old was a baby the last time the Twins wore the baby blues as part of their regular rotation (1986, which was 33 years ago), while those a little younger were not yet born.

But the average 41-year-old (and those who skew older) probably has pretty clear memories of the Twins wearing those uniforms. And, let’s face it: Those were not great times.

The Twins wore them from 1973-1986 as their road uniforms, a span of 14 seasons during which the Twins made zero playoff appearances; in the final seven of those years, they never finished above .500.

The year after they ditched them, the Twins won the World Series. Coincidence?!?! (Probably, particularly considering they were awful on the road in 1987).

It stands to reason, then, that the average Twitter user might just look at the colors and say, “I like that!” while the average Star Tribune commenter might associate the colors with bad baseball memories and decry their return.

*The comments section of a web site and Twitter both perpetuate a herd mentality.

Once the ball got rolling with some negative comments on the Strib site — a group of commenters that *some* might say skews pessimistic to begin with — my guess is that others felt more comfortable chiming in.

Likewise, positive feedback on Twitter — on the Twins’ official feed, which probably includes more optimistic-leaning fans — possibly perpetuated even more platitudes.

*As for me? I like the look. Then again, I’m a 43-year-old who didn’t pay attention to the Twins until the late 1990s and therefore I have no mental imagery of Ron Davis blowing a save while wearing one. And I spend a lot of time on Twitter and the site.

I encourage you to make up your own mind, though I did like this comment from @ryannolan about all the options available to the Twins (and for purchase by fans): “So the Twins now have six uniforms. They’ll have more wardrobe changes than a Lady Gaga concert.”

Who will be the celebrity guest picker for Gophers’ first ‘GameDay’?

For much of this college football season, as the Gophers racked up wins and national exposure, Minnesota fans (and head coach P.J. Fleck) have been clamoring for ESPN’s “College GameDay” to make its first-ever visit to campus.

After coming up short in that bid before the Penn State game, the wish was granted quickly after the Gophers and Badgers both won Saturday, setting up a winner-takes-the-West battle Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium.

And almost as soon as the announcement was made, fans began wondering and speculating about something else: Who would be the celebrity guest picker chosen for this week’s show?

While students are busy making signs — a staple of the show, so much so that the U is hosting a sign-making event Tuesday on campus — the official Gophers Football Twitter account asked for guesses on who the show will pick as its celebrity, and the tweet has received more than 1,000 replies.

For my money, the leaders in the clubhouse have to be: Bud Grant, Lindsay Whalen, Ric Flair, Eric Decker, Tony Dungy and Brock Lesnar.

What does the history of GameDay guest pickers tell us? Well, this shouldn’t be much of a surprise but the guest picker is typically 1) someone who attended the host school and 2) either a former star athlete or another celebrity. All of the aforementioned names fit into those categories.

The last three guest pickers, for instance, were: Eddie George at Ohio State (former star running back there); Chip and Joanna Gaines at Baylor (alums and stars of the HGTV show “Fixer Upper”); Justin Thomas at Alabama (star golfer and alum).

Earlier this year superfan, actor and Texas alum Matthew McConaughey was the painfully obvious (and excellent) choice when the Longhorns hosted. (For an exhaustive list of all the past pickers and how they fared with their picks, here you go).

Sometimes the show goes off the grid, though — like when it picked country singer Eric Church earlier this year for its first-ever trip to Iowa State. Church has no real ties to the school or the state.

We always like to stick to coach (Lee) Corso’s mantra which is ‘entertainment, sweetheart,'” GameDay producer Drew Gallagher told the Des Moines Register. “Whether that’s someone connected to the school, the rivalry, a celebrity outside—a little level of unpredictablitiy is good too.”

Hmmm. If we factor in entertainment, too, the chances of pro wrestling luminaries Flair or Lesnar being the pick have to go up quite a bit. Flair was an offensive lineman for the Gophers in 1969 during his brief attendance at the U. Lesnar was a star wrestler here before going onto bigger fame in WWE and mixed martial arts. Flair was just down in Georgia, though, two months ago as part of the GameDay program. Near as I can tell, Lesnar has never done it.

Dungy, Whalen and Grant are all a little more subdued, though to be fair all of us are subdued compared to pro wrestlers. Decker would work, but the more I think about it Lesnar seems like a natural.

Regardless, it seems like there are plenty of strong local connections for GameDay to avoid having to think too far outside the box. Until then, feel free to keep speculating in the comments.

Are the Wolves a legitimate playoff contender, or is their start a mirage?

The phrase “if the season ended today” is kind of terrible because it inherently leads to the truth that a season does not, in fact, end today — often far from it.

So pardon me while I clear my throat and do it anyway, 15 games into an 82-game NBA season: If the season ended today, the Timberwolves would be a playoff team.

We are of course far from the finish line, and the Wolves’ 8-7 record is far from perfect. But I dare say eight wins at this point is more than most folks would have imagined (hand raised here, given that I thought the Wolves and Wild would be a race to 30 wins apiece, and that one or both might not get there).

It’s a good time to stop and ask the question: Are the Wolves really a legitimate contender for a playoff spot, or is this better-than-expected start to the season a mirage? To do that, let’s weigh some of the good and the bad.

Three signs point to yes, this is sustainable

1 The Wolves have survived stretches without key players.

Sure, every team is going to have to survive at times without important players. But the Wolves have already had to deal with Karl-Anthony Towns missing two games for a suspension, Andrew Wiggins missing three games for personal reasons/illness and four games during which neither of their top two point guards were available.

The KAT and Wiggins absences are particularly big given that before last season, they had combined to miss just ONE game in their entire careers (and even last year they only missed 14 combined — five for KAT and nine for Wiggins). They went 1-1 without Towns, 2-2 without a preferred point guard and 1-2 without Wiggins. Their record might be even better had they been closer to full strength.

2 They’re taking the right kinds of shots, and they will make them more going forward.

A full 71.2% of Wolves shots are coming either at the rim or from three-point range, a dramatic improvement from last season (60.3%).

Yeah, the bad news is that the Wolves are shooting just 31.3% from three-point range (No. 27 in the league) and and dead last in three-point percentage when their shooters are wide open (30.9%).

But that’s actually good news in the context of room to improve and sustainability of success. They’re winning despite not shooting the lights out from long distance, and if they nudge closer to league average (35.3% this season) from three, they will add points every game.

3. The West maybe isn’t as daunting as it seemed.

It’s early, but we can draw some hard conclusions and guess about some others. Golden State, for instance, is awful. The Warriors went from perennial championship favorites to “likely 45-50 win team” to lottery-bound with a string of bad luck. They are the worst team in the West, at least until Stephen Curry gets back.

Doubt the Spurs at your own peril, but at 5-10 they look like a fringe playoff contender at best. Portland is a head-scratching 5-11, but if their answer to that slow start is high-usage for the recently signed Carmelo Anthony, maybe their plummet will continue.

At the very least, it doesn’t look like it will take 47 or 48 wins (the totals for the No. 8 seeds the last two years in the West) to make the playoffs. Something closer to .500 might do it, and that should keep a lot of teams — including the Wolves — in the mix for a while.

Three signs point to no, this is a mirage

1 The Wolves have a negative net rating (points scored minus points allowed per 100 possessions), and they’re the only team with a winning record about which that is true.

It speaks to how good they’ve been in close games (5-2 in games decided by 10 points or fewer, including 2-1 in overtime games) while getting blown out often in losses (five of their seven are by 16 or more points). Closing games is a skill, but clutch stats tend to flatten out over time.

2 They’ve cut down on their low percentage shots, but they’re making them at a potentially unsustainable clip.

Per Basketball Reference, the Wolves are shooting 45.1% on shots from 3-10 feet (No. 2 in the league, average is 38.9%); 44.8% on shots from 10-16 feet (No. 6, league average is 41.2%); and 43.9% from 16 feet to the 3-point line (No. 6, average is 40.5%). As their three-point percentage creeps up, those mid-range 2 numbers might go down, and the net effect could be zero.

3 Andrew Wiggins could be due for a regression.

There’s no doubt that Wiggins, like the Wolves as a whole, has been much better than many of us expected. It’s safe to say that they wouldn’t be 8-7 without him — maybe more like 6-9. That’s how important he has been, particularly in clutch situations.

But even if he continues down the path of more rim attacks, better overall shot selection and — this is the big one — a decidedly better handle, there is evidence to suggest he will regress from his strong start. That would still leave the Wolves with a better version of Wiggins than we have seen in a while, but it might cut into the optimism for a playoff push this year.

Final verdict

A good comp for this year’s Wolves might be last year’s Kings — a team that exceeded expectations and stayed at or near .500 before ultimately fading a little with a 39-43 finish. That pushed Sacramento nine games out of the playoffs by the end of last year. This year, it might mean the Wolves are in the hunt until the final weeks — and maybe even good enough to grab one of the last spots.

MLB controversies are hard to track, but Astros’ cheating is the big one

It’s hard to keep track of all of Major League Baseball’s recent controversies, so you are forgiven if you are still sorting out the unpopular plan to cut dozens of minor league teams or have already moved on to news of an impending labor showdown.

Or maybe you simply can’t keep straight the investigations into the Astros. A month go during the World Series it was about an executive who was eventually fired. Now Houston is in an ocean of hot water over allegations that has been stealing signs electronically — including in 2017 when it won the World Series.

But this sign stealing investigation is one where we really need to keep our eyes on the ball.

Former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers was the whistle blower of sorts, and now MLB is investigating. Commissioner Rob Manfred said Tuesday, “Any allegation that relates to a rule violation that affects the outcome of a game is the most serious matter; it relates to the integrity of the sport.”

Conventional sign stealing is unsavory, but it has been built into the culture of baseball (and other sports and life itself, one supposes) as some sort of espionage subplot. It’s not against the rules; stealing signs with a came is definitely against the rules.

If you want to say that electronic sign stealing is basically the same thing as a runner on second base cracking a code from a distance with just his eyes — and what the Astros did is just a 21st Century version incorporating the evolving tools at our disposal — then perhaps you should try this analogy:

Sign stealing that involves nothing but cracking the code unaided by technology is akin to stealing someone’s wallet that has been left in a relatively unguarded area. The person doing the stealing is still to blame and in the wrong, but the victim contributed with carelessness.

Sign stealing like the Astros (and apparently other teams) engaged in is akin to stealing someone’s credit card information by hacking into a secure system. The person doing the stealing has gone beyond a mere crime of opportunity.

(What remains particularly hilarious in this whole thing is the Astros’ ham-handed, extremely analog method of relaying the information — often coming in the form of a loud bang in the dugout. That’s basically like publishing a confession on a billboard).

How much did the Astros potentially benefit from their crime? FiveThirtyEight found that from 2016 to 2017 (the biggest year in question), the Astros had a significant jump in power and decrease in strikeouts. Some of it was was surely talent and teaching, and the jump occurred both at home and on the road (though was more pronounced at home). But knowing when certain pitches are coming is a huge and unfair edge in a game of reaction times down to the millisecond.

The Astros seem to be deploying a “don’t just look at us, everyone is doing it” defense, which is about the most guilty defense possible.

MLB’s investigation is looking at cheating at an extremely high level, one that gave Houston a competitive edge in real-time in 2017. If enough damning evidence is found, I don’t think it would be overstepping boundaries to strip the Astros of their World Series title. If that’s too harsh, maybe take away all their draft picks for the next two years, dooming them to future hardship.

By the way, in case you are worried that the Twins might be tangled up in this mess as a means of explaining their sudden jump to 307 home runs last season: it seems unlikely considering their batting splits and power were much better on the road than at home.

No, the Twins likely just benefited (and eventually suffered) from another of MLB’s controversies this season: the juiced up ball that was launched out at a record rate in the regular season before mysteriously dulling in the playoffs.

It’s been a tough couple of months for MLB, and it doesn’t figure to get better anytime soon.

Has the Vikings’ offense caught up to (and maybe even passed) the defense?

Fresh off a thrilling victory in which the offense and defense were putrid in the first half and brilliant in the second half, and staring at a long stretch of time off until the Vikings play again (Monday, Dec. 2, at Seattle), this question keeps popping into my head:

Are we at a point now with the Vikings where the offense has caught up to the defense in terms of which is the better unit? And if we are going to go that far, might we even go further and suggest that the offense is better than the defense?

Let’s start here: Defense has clearly been the Vikings’ identity since Mike Zimmer was hired as head coach in 2014. And in the first five years (2014-18), as Zimmer has instilled his philosophy and built up the talent/schemes on that side of the ball, the defense was always ahead of the offense.

To illustrate that point, let’s just look at the Pro Football Focus rankings — Zimmer’s favorite! — on both sides of the ball.

2014: Offense — 21st. Defense — 4th.

2015: Offense — 17th. Defense — 7th.

2016: Offense — 23rd. Defense — 19th.

2017: Offense — 6th. Defense — 4th.

2018: Offense — 14th. Defense — 10th.

The gaps are maybe closer than I thought they would be in the last few years. But I think if you asked anyone what the identity of all those teams was — the way in which the Vikings expected to win — it was defense. And at the end of the day, the defense still ranked ahead of the offense each of those years, at least in the PFF metrics.

But this year is … different. It’s very much like 2017 in that both units have been very good for much of the time, but the rankings are reversed. This year, the Vikings are No. 4 in offense per PFF and No. 6 in defense.

If we shift to Football Outsiders and their DVOA efficiency metric, it’s a similar story: No. 6 in offense, No. 7 in defense.

Prefer less advanced stats? The Vikings are No. 9 in yards per game but just 15th in yards allowed this season (though they are No. 8 in points scored but still fifth in points allowed, a testament to the bend-but-don’t-break nature of this year’s defense).

Also, here’s another stat for you: In Zimmer’s first five seasons, the Vikings were a combined 9-26-1 in games (counting playoffs) when they allowed at least 20 points. During that time, Zimmer was fond of repeating that if the offense could get him 21 points the Vikings would win (and he was often correct).

This season, the Vikings are 4-2 when allowing 20 points or more, including wins each of the last two weeks (28-24 at Dallas, 27-23 over Denver). What’s extra interesting about that is that the Vikings allowed 20+ points in 36 of Zimmer’s first 83 games (counting playoffs), just 43% of the time. This year it’s six of 11 games, or 55%.

Those numbers suggest the offense is being asked to do more this season and that it’s up for the challenge.

If we further want to split hairs, you can argue the Vikings’ offense is ahead of the defense this year because it has better balance between run and pass.

Per FBO, the Vikings are No. 8 in both passing and rushing offensive efficiency this year; on defense, they are No. 5 against the run but a mediocre No. 14 vs. the pass.

*I think there’s at least enough statistical evidence to say the Vikings’ offense has caught up to the defense — and perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising since the Vikings have invested more heavily on that side of the ball in recent years.

In 2014-16, Zimmer’s first three seasons, the Vikings had a total of nine picks in the first three rounds of the draft. Six of those were used on defensive players, and five of them still play key roles: Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks, Danielle Hunter, Trae Waynes, and Mackensie Alexander.

In 2017-19, the Vikings have used six of their seven picks in the top three rounds on offensive players, all of whom are contributing this season: Dalvin Cook, Pat Elflein, Brian O’Neill, Garrett Bradbury, Irv Smith Jr. and Alexander Mattison.

There’s also the matter of the $84 million investment in quarterback Kirk Cousins, which is a big part of this year’s offensive story.

*But is the offense better than the defense? I’m not quite ready to say that yet, and maybe it still comes down to trust.

I’ve seen the defense come up big more often in the past than I’ve seen the offense do it, and that’s still my expectation (right or wrong). If there was one play from the 3 yard line in the closing seconds, a touchdown wins the game, would you rather have the Vikings’ offense trying to score or the defense trying to make a stop?

I still think I like the defense more in that situation — whether that’s the recency bias of seeing them do it against Denver or six seasons of seeing Zimmers defenses, that’s my answer.

But if you’re a Vikings fan, you have to feel good about the balance on this team. Teams are most dangerous when they can win in a variety of ways, particularly in the playoffs. I can picture the Vikings winning 16-13 or 30-27. They finally have a team that can do both.

With Wild in ‘sadness’ of purgatory, Sabres are both a ray of hope and a cautionary tale

Micah Blake McCurdy runs a website of helpful hockey charts (and accompanying Twitter feed), and my favorite of all his data-based visual reports is one called “Sadness.”

The Sadness report offers rolling odds, updated each day, of how likely it is for an NHL team to both miss the playoffs AND not get a top-five draft pick. Those are the teams in NHL purgatory — not good enough to make the postseason, but not bad enough to have a better chance at drafting a high-impact player who could change their fortunes down the road.

Entering play Tuesday, the Wild rank second-highest on the “sadness” list with a 48% chance, per Hockey Viz, of achieving the undesired double. And really, Minnesota is No. 1 on the list if we exclude the Sharks — the runaway sadness leaders at the moment at 75%, but mainly because they have already traded away their first-round pick in 2020 (and therefore won’t have a top-five pick even if they nab one in the lottery).

The Wild’s season is only 20 games old, but I can’t think of a better measure of the organization’s purgatory predicament than this one.

Minnesota lags near the bottom now but is probably good enough to move up some in the standings once its home/road schedule evens out — so far, 13 of 20 have been on the road, and that will increase to 20 out of its first 30 after the Wild plays on Dec. 7 at Carolina. That means 31 of its last 52 games are at Xcel Energy Center.

By then, though, will new general manager Bill Guerin have seen enough to convince him that the time to move has come? I keep circling back to this quote from last week:

“We have to do what’s right for the organization as a whole, not grasp at straws,” Guerin said. “We don’t want to talk ourselves into something that we don’t really want to do or think we’re something that we’re not. We have to be very honest with ourselves and then move accordingly.”

A wholesale rebuild is risky, but short of a revival that boosts the Wild into playoff contention — to be sure, the preferred way to get a team’s “sadness” percentage lowered is that route and not a standings free-fall — it sure seems to beat purgatory.

Tuesday’s opponent, Buffalo, is a good example of the pain and the potential of bottoming out. The Sabres used to be like the Wild, either making the playoffs or competing for a spot pretty much every season.

But the Sabres have missed the playoffs each of the last eight years, sometimes in spectacularly bad fashion.

Along the way, though, they accumulated some serious draft capital — two No. 2 overall picks and a No. 1 pick — that are paying dividends this season with the Sabres off to a respectable 10-7-3 start that has them in the playoff hunt even though they have cooled off after a hot October.  Jack Eichel (13 goals), Sam Reinhart and Rasmus Dahlin, all of them top-2 picks in the last six drafts, are key contributors and part of a strong young core.

Eight years, though, is a long time to wait between playoff trips — and there’s no guarantee Buffalo has turned the corner now.

The Wild has never fully bottomed out in franchise history, as evidenced by having just drafted two players ever in the top five: Marian Gaborik (No. 3 in 2000) and Benoit Pouliot (No. 4 in 2005). One is the lone true superstar in Wild history; the other was a disappointment here who went on to have a decent NHL career. And it’s been 14 drafts since the Wild had a crack at another top-5 pick.

The Wild missed the playoffs four consecutive years from 2009-12, but none yielded a draft pick higher than No. 7.

What’s worse: Being truly awful for a long time, with a chance to either stay awful or become great? Or treading water long enough to hopefully bounce back into the playoff mix?

It all depends, I suppose, on how you define sadness.

New challenge for Gophers: Avoid the letdown after a heartbreak

At some point, there will be no more need for historical comparisons regarding Gophers football – at least not those dating back to 2003.

When we say, “The last time the Gophers …” or “In this situation, Minnesota” … the new frame of reference, in the not-too-distant future, might be 2019.

But for now, there is only so much meaningful history. Almost every success or failure a Gophers team has ends up getting compared inevitably to 2003 or some point a half-century (or more) ago.

So when the Gophers raced to an 8-0 start and were staring at a showdown against Penn State, a lot of talk in the lead-up went back to 16 years ago, when Minnesota started 6-0 and led Michigan 28-7 before collapsing in a 38-35 home loss.

Minnesota more than survived that test this season, securing a program-defining 31-26 win over the Nittany Lions. But now that the Gophers have suffered their first defeat this season – 23-19 at Iowa on Saturday, a loss that was more frustrating than alarming – there is another cautionary tale to remember from 2003: learning how to move on quickly from disappointment.

After that loss to Michigan, the Gophers still sat at 6-1 (2-1 in the Big Ten) and had a favorable schedule the rest of the way. Their next game was at home against Michigan State – a good but not great team that season, and one that lost four of its final five games – and the Gophers were six-point favorites.

But the emotional hangover from the loss to the Wolverines was real. Michigan State jumped to a 17-0 lead and led 44-24 in the fourth quarter before a couple of late touchdowns by the Gophers made the final score a more respectable-looking 44-38.

The Gophers did rally to win their next three Big Ten games (including a win over Wisconsin) before closing the conference year with a loss to Iowa. But that Michigan State game pretty much sealed their fate in the Big Ten race and ensured that a potentially great season was merely very good (10-3 and a bowl win counts for that description with this program).

Sixteen years later, the Gophers have a much different opponent ahead of them: Northwestern is 2-8 overall, including 0-7 in the Big Ten. The Gophers are 13.5-point favorites in the latest odds. But this is a Big Ten road game, and the potential for a hangover from Iowa still exists — particularly with Tanner Morgan’s status up in the air.

This doesn’t feel like the kind of Gophers team that will experience such a thing, but then again I thought Minnesota would play much more crisply than it did at Iowa. Whether that was the weight of expectations or just one of those days is up for debate, but Gophers linebacker Thomas Barber described it like this: “We just weren’t mentally prepared for the game.”

A team with realistic Rose Bowl aspirations – win Saturday and win against Wisconsin two weeks from now, and Pasadena becomes the most likely outcome – will need to make sure there are no mental missteps in Evanston.

Very good seasons are nice. But great ones are memorable.