Nearly three months ago, The Badger Herald titled its season preview for the Wisconsin football season “On the Brink,” the bold, oversized lettering itself representative of the expectations surrounding this team.
My own hands were among those that helped build the towering expectations for this team, fully convinced there would be no drop-off from the lethal offensive numbers of 2011 despite the departure of several key pieces.
Twelve games later, an embattled 7-5 record in hand, Wisconsin remains on the brink of a defining step forward as it heads to Indianapolis for a rematch with Nebraska Saturday. No, this isn’t exactly how fans imagined the season would play out. There’s no argument that UW flopped in a historically weak year for the Big Ten.
A carousel of quarterbacks, uncharacteristic instability along the offensive line and an offense that often turned stagnant will keep Wisconsin from its fourth-consecutive season with 10-plus wins.
But, for just a minute, let’s put aside the three unbearably close overtime defeats and the momentum-crushing injury to Joel Stave just as he grew comfortable in his role as the starter. Because another mark remains on the line in Indy — Wisconsin maintaining its spot among the Big Ten elite.
Thousands of words have been dedicated to the Badgers’ recent rise in the conference after earning a spot in the Big Ten’s premier bowl game for two-straight years. The program is tantalizingly close to securing a permanent spot among the likes of Ohio State and Michigan, the traditional, established conference powers. But fans have seen this situation develop before, and it did not exactly end as hoped.
In 1999 and 2000, Barry Alvarez led the Badgers to back-to-back trips to Pasadena. But disappointment followed close behind. The next season UW appeared in the Sun Bowl, then did not even qualify for a bowl game in 2002 after a 5-7 campaign. They followed that up with an Alamo Bowl win in 2002. It took the cardinal and white more than a decade to return to the Rose Bowl for the first time under head coach Bret Bielema in 2011.
And such history is precisely what makes this such a pivotal moment for the program. That’s not to say that if the Badgers lose Sunday — a game they head into as the significant underdog — history will automatically repeat itself. But a third-consecutive appearance in the Granddaddy of Them All on New Year’s Day would provide a major boost for the program’s brand, one that could lessen the blow of the team finishing with its worst record since 2008.
Plenty of critics have reasonable arguments that Wisconsin does not even deserve to be competing for a Big Ten title, a spot it secured thanks to some conveniently-timed NCAA sanctions against Penn State and Ohio State. At the same time, an appearance in the Rose Bowl remains just that, regardless of the path a team took to get there. The national exposure, the increased hype heading into the next season — each can only help the program grow in years to come.
The unique circumstances granting UW this opportunity make a redemptive victory over the Huskers all the more meaningful. A defeat to the Huskers for the second time this season likely means a trip to the Gator Bowl in sunny Jacksonville, Fla., a place with just a little less tradition than the 110-year history of the Rose Bowl. That would place Wisconsin below the likes of Northwestern, placing a sizable dent in the program’s effort to establish itself among the top rung of the Big Ten ladder.
Sure, there’s always the chance to turn things around next year, with plenty of promising talent ready to return to the Camp Randall field next September. But in an era where coaches are judged and recruits lured in by the “here and now” status of the program, consistent success is essential.
So much has gone awry for the Wisconsin football team this season. Danny O’Brien, the man many expected to be the Badgers’ savior in the post-Russell Wilson era, never looked comfortable directing a new offense. Though quietly piecing together another stellar season, Montee Ball struggled early on behind an offensive line that clearly needed more time to develop than outside onlookers expected.
The talent and experience of this squad simply does not match that of the previous two Rose Bowl teams, and it took trying moments of reflection to realize that. But that does not take away from the lasting impact this senior class can have on the program before they take their final step onto the field in a Wisconsin uniform.
Disappointment may have marred a season where fans expected another 11-win campaign and another regular season Leaders Division title. Yet none of that will matter when the Wisconsin players race out of the tunnel at Lucas Oil Stadium Saturday, a deep hunger within each of them to not have this game end with another fourth quarter breakdown, another tear-filled defeat.
It’s only one game. It will be years before it’s clear what impact a single victory or defeat over Taylor Martinez and Co. has on the direction of this program. But it is safe to say a third-straight Big Ten title would place Wisconsin in much better standing for the future than a 7-6 record and an appearance in a bottom-rung bowl game.
And so the Badgers return to the very place where they earned that oh-so-satisfying victory over Michigan State a year ago. While much has gone wrong in 2012, much still stands to be gained for the Wisconsin football team in Indianapolis Saturday.