football-nickcolumn_KF

Wisconsin\’s running back trio of Melvin Gordon (25), Montee Ball (28) and James White (20) have struggled at times to find holes behind an inconsistent offensive line.[/media-credit]

And I thought “As the World Turns” was the best soap opera on TV.

OK, I’ve never watched a soap opera, you caught me. The only time I’d be suckered into watching that sappy genre of a television show has been when I’m sick and stuck at home, too ill to physically reach the remote.

But seriously, this Big Ten title picture is shaping up into a drama-filled doozy. With just four bowl-eligible teams out of six in the Leaders Division, I thought this season would be a cakewalk for the Wisconsin Badgers to make it back to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship Game.

How wrong I was.

With the Badgers’ record sitting at 1-1 in conference play – the surprising best of the bowl-eligible teams in their division – if the season ended today, the Badgers would indeed be packing their bags for a trip to Lucas Oil Stadium.

“Wait,” you might be thinking, “after the way the Badgers have looked this season, they are still in prime position to fight for a third-consecutive trip to Pasadena”?

Yes, they are. And that’s what has made this season so unique, so entertaining and so frustrating thus far. Every coach, player and fan with half of a functional cerebellum knows this team has the talent, experience and potential to win the Big Ten title outright. But, what has made this season have that little bit of spice, that flair that comes with the unexpected, is that the Badgers have been extremely inconsistent on both sides of the ball.

In fact, if there’s one thing Wisconsin has been consistent at this season, it’s being inconsistent.

Look at the Badgers’ offense. When they go three-and-out on a series, I want to slam my head onto a desk. At times, the play calling is so predictable I wonder if offensive coordinator Matt Canada is secretly playing Madden 2013 in the coaching box while spitting random calls into the headset.

But then there are moments where I think Canada is former offensive coordinator Paul Chryst. The screen play on third down that resulted in a touchdown to running back James White was a perfect offset to the blitz Illinois showed on the previous third-and-longs. And then again, why wouldn’t they send the house when the Wisconsin offensive line has struggled like it has against the blitz throughout the season?

Then there was that beautiful long bomb to Jared Abbrederis for a 59-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter that looked more like a piece of fine art that belonged in the Louvre. When Stave shows off that arm of his, not to get emotional, but it’s just beautiful. The way he makes it look so effortless, almost Russell Wilson-esque, it brings a tear to my eye. And Abbrederis, seriously, is one of the best receivers to play at Wisconsin in a long time.

And that’s why I want to love this Badger team. I want to believe they can make it to Indy, to Pasadena, with ease. When the Badgers are on, I’m not sure anyone in the conference, with the exception of Ohio State, can compete with them. What they showed in the first half at Nebraska was what I thought this entire season would be like.

But games like Illinois serve as the perfect microcosm for this season. As fellow Herald football writer Kelly Erickson jokingly said to me, “The team stressed playing an entire four quarters of football, and instead we got just a great fourth quarter.” It is, in a way, extremely fitting of this Saturday. The Badgers looked like the same team that laid an egg in Corvallis, Ore., for three quarters, only up 10-7 to a lowly Illini team.

But then, the dammed up waters broke through the barriers. Wisconsin scored 21 points in a furious fourth quarter, dominating through the air and on the ground. Out of Montee Ball’s 116 total yards on the ground, 97 of them came in the fourth quarter. That’s vintage Wisconsin football. The physical play of the offensive line eventually wore down an inferior front seven for Illinois and bullied it like the big boys they are in the game’s final 15 minutes.

Why can’t they play like that constantly?

This is the situation the Badgers will find themselves in going into West Lafayette, Ind., Saturday afternoon. Win, and you leave by far the second-best bowl eligible team in the division – behind the Badgers – with an 0-2 conference record and win what could be a critical head-to-head game tie-breaker that could come into play down the road. Lose, and you have a losing record in conference play with Michigan State and Ohio State still left on the schedule.

Let’s be honest here. Barring some sort of catastrophic breakdown or the Mayan apocalypse coming early, the Badgers will finish with a better overall record than both Illinois and Indiana, the other bowl-eligible teams in their division. So, a win against Purdue gives Wisconsin an early footing on solid ground in the race to Indy.

Sure, Penn State and Ohio State have 2-0 records, but they’re not eligible for a bowl, so it doesn’t matter. I’d love it if the Badgers finished with the best record of all the teams in their conference, but once Wisconsin makes that third-straight trip to the Rose Bowl, fans won’t care how the team got there.

If the Badgers had to pick a season to struggle, at least they picked the right one.

Nick is a fifth-year senior majoring in English and history. Besides writing for The Badger Herald, Nick is a member of WSUM’s “The Badger Herald Sports Hour,” airing Sundays from 4-5 p.m., and “The Student Section,” airing Mondays from 4-6 p.m. Have a comment about the column? Email him at nkorger@badgerherald.com or follow him on Twitter @nickkorger.