If you did not see it coming before, this weekend made what has seemed inevitable for a couple weeks clear: an undefeated team will not be playing for college football's national championship.
When the mainland United States' only unbeaten, Kansas, lost on Saturday night, and LSU — a team with one loss but also holding a stacked BCS deck— losing Friday, that realization gave way to a collective cringe that was felt in the stomach of fans across the country, Madison included.
As it turns out, had the Badgers lost one game instead of three (not an unattainable feat), they could have been in contention for a spot in this season's BCS National Championship Game.
If Wisconsin had gotten by any two of the three teams they lost to, Illinois, Penn State or Ohio State, UW would be doing BCS math right now, trying to figure out where it stood in the championship picture instead of making reservations to play in a second-tier bowl game.
With no undefeated team playing for the national championship this season, the hopes dashed across the country after tough-to-swallow early losses now seem to have been lost preemptively.
They certainly were here. With pressure and expectations rising — albeit cautiously after some close calls — then-No. 5 Wisconsin lost, but was not upset by unranked Illinois (the team that would also end Ohio State's perfect season).
At that point it appeared that all hope for a championship crown had been lost. A shot at the Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl appearance — still nothing to sneer at — seemed to be the highest achievable remaining outcome.
Remember, at the time, the nation still included 10 undefeated teams among the Top 25, and a single loss felt more like a crushing blow than the speed bump it would eventually turn out to be.
So, woefully, Wisconsin went and got crushed at Penn State for its second loss, came home to pick itself up against Northern Illinois and Indiana, then went and blew a lead at Ohio State — then the country's top-ranked team — en route to finishing with three regular season losses.
Beating Michigan in the penultimate game of the regular season helped make the year bearable. But couple the Wolverines' decision to sit quarterback Chad Henne for most of the game and running back Mike Hart for all of it with what happened this weekend in the championship picture, and it's tough not to think about what could've been this season.
Just like almost every other team in the country right now, this season for Wisconsin has become a collection of not just memories and statistics, but more disappointingly "what-ifs."
What if Lance Smith hadn't missed all the team's road games — and all the losses — because of his unconventional suspension?
What if top wide receiver Luke Swan hadn't been hurt against Illinois?
What if Allan Evridge had beaten out Tyler Donovan for the starting quarterback job in the preseason?
What if the defense had been more prepared to face a spread offense?
The list goes on, but in the end it doesn't matter what the answers to these questions are or were. Nothing will change, and the Badgers will likely take their three losses to the Outback or Alamo Bowl to give fans a last glimpse for the season against another team disappointed with where it is playing.
For 60 more minutes the Badgers will play football, and for the next nine months fans will alternate between bemoaning the failures of this season, giving credit to the high points and speculating on what next season will hold.
Next year, barring any major changes, Wisconsin will boast a loaded backfield and a defense that will, at the very least, be an experienced group.
With a little luck, tight end Travis Beckum will return and bolster a young receiving corps led by Kyle Jefferson, who showed a lot of promise when thrown into the mix this season. The defense may even figure out how to stop the big plays.
How the roster shapes up next season and what promise the 2008 season may hold is a different discussion for a different day, though.
What's going to be important to remember now, and what this season and this past weekend have shown, is that when UW loses for the first time next season it won't be the end of the world, but rather, just a speed bump.
Mike is an undecided sophomore. If you think that one loss is a realistic goal for next year's team, that somebody will go undefeated next year or have already turned your attention to the basketball team and didn't even read most of the column, he can be reached at [email protected]