The past two years, the Wisconsin Badgers have made the trip to Pasadena.
That’s a remarkable feat for any team. Two consecutive years of finding a way through the highs and lows, rebounding from last-second losses and finding a way to get to one of the premiere stages in college football is not exactly a walk in the park. For many schools, making consecutive BCS appearances would mark an apex in program history.
But not at Wisconsin.
Losing the “Granddaddy of Them All” twice, and even more painfully, by the smallest of margins, has hampered the Badgers in their march to solidify their reputation as the premiere team in the Big Ten. Although it takes decades of success to establish a name as strong as the Big Ten’s Michigan and Ohio State, winning two consecutive Rose Bowls could have sealed Wisconsin’s reign as the new dynasty in the conference. But somehow, the smell of roses has been only a whiff that’s alluringly resonated in the nostrils of Badger fans and players alike.
Yet if there’s one thing head coach Bret Bielema and the Badgers have shown, it’s resiliency. After losing the Rose Bowl in 2011 to TCU on a failed two-point conversion, the program caught its greatest prize in school history by landing Russell Wilson. The N.C. State transfer went on to shatter the NCAA mark for passing efficiency in a single season and the Wisconsin single-season mark for touchdowns (33), passing yards (3,175), completions (225) and yards of total offense (3,513).
The offensive fireworks last season didn’t stop with Wilson, either. Montee Ball radiantly displayed what Wisconsin has been lacking for so long — a complete running back. Producing a touchdown total that has been matched only by the legendary Barry Sanders, Ball benefited immensely from the combination of his first full season as the Badgers’ starting tailback as well as the commanding presence and talent of Wilson. In a historic season, he amassed an incredible 39 touchdowns and led the country with 2,229 yards from scrimmage.
Needless to say, Wilson and Ball’s domination during their time together at Wisconsin served as an eye-opener to the rest of the country. The Badgers may have played the most primetime, nationally televised games in school history last season — the team played three games with ESPN’s “College GameDay” on-site and had played just seven prior to 2011 — while showcasing an explosive, balanced offense that shattered the mold of the “run-first” model that has become a stereotype associated with Wisconsin football.
Add an ESPN “This is SportsCenter” commercial with Bucky Facebook creeping, and it became apparent that UW had indeed landed a permanent spot on the national stage.
However, even with the school’s greatest offensive year in history (the Badgers put up 6,578 total yards last season, shattering the previous mark by almost 1,000 yards), the team failed to bring home any BCS hardware. It was a successful season in the conference for UW, winning the first ever Big Ten Conference Championship Game, but the Badgers fell just short once again of silencing the critics and doubters of Big Ten football against the other major conferences. Wisconsin has reached its destination twice with a chance to take the next step in the program’s history. Now it’s just a matter of finishing the job.
The Badgers have plenty of weapons to make another Rose Bowl push. While Ball decided to forgo the NFL draft and remain at Wisconsin for his senior season, he is just one in a handful of key returnees coming back to run the Badgers’ offensive machine.
Wideout Jared Abbrederis will return to become the No. 1 receiver after enjoying a breakout sophomore campaign, replacing the hole left by the departure of Nick Toon. Tight end Jacob Pedersen returns as another solid option in the passing game after registering eight touchdowns last year, the second-highest mark in the country at his position. Quarterback Danny O’Brien will face some growing pains in his first few months at Wisconsin, but the junior has the talent and the experience to be a successful quarterback in the Big Ten.
While the major offensive personnel looks mostly set, the deciding factor of success this season will again lay in the Badgers’ defense and more specifically its ability to get to the quarterback. Wisconsin contains arguably the best linebacker tandem in the nation with Chris Borland and Mike Taylor, but a playmaker must emerge in the defensive trenches if the Badgers hope to win close games.
Reflecting on last year, the Badgers’ inability to wrangle down Michigan State’s Kirk Cousins and Ohio State’s Braxton Miller cost the team losses. Both Beau Allen and Brendan Kelly showed glimpses of big-play potential, and with another off-season to get stronger and faster, and with David Gilbert returning from a foot injury that sidelined him for almost the entire 2011 season, the Badgers could see vast improvement.
Wisconsin finally has a favorable schedule in 2012. Aside from road games at Nebraska and Penn State, the Badgers welcome Michigan State back to Camp Randall for the first time since 2009. Add in Ohio State’s lack of bowl eligibility this season and the Badgers have the table set for another run at a Big Ten Championship and a Rose Bowl title.
Like any other season, the ultimate goal for this program is a national championship — which the Badgers were just two desperation heaves away from playing for last year. But with large turnover on the roster and coaching staff, this season will be the most challenging test to reach a BCS bowl in recent years. Even with all the changes, and as this long, hot summer interlude before training camp wanes, the Badgers are poised to repeat and even build on their success from a season ago.
Nick is a fifth year senior majoring in history and English. Have any predictions for the Badgers upcoming season? Let him know at [email protected]