For Wisconsin football fans, Saturday’s heartbreaking, axe-taking loss to Minnesota was all too familiar, at least since the start of the 2000 season. Another tight game, another tough loss, another Big Ten title officially out of reach.

It was not supposed to be this way after the Badgers captured back-to-back Rose Bowl titles in 1998 and 1999. Many expected Wisconsin to become a perennial Big Ten title contender. Instead, over the past three-and-a-half years, starting with the infamous Shoe Box scandal, the Badgers have seen high hopes go unfulfilled.

“I have to evaluate our program,” head coach Barry Alvarez said at Monday’s press conference. “Everyone wants to win, everyone wants to win right now. Everyone wants to stay at where we were in ’98 and ’99. That’s very difficult to do.”

But Alvarez debunked the myth of a program in decline with one key figure: the Badgers have gone to nine bowl games in 11 seasons, including this year (with six wins, they’re already bowl eligible). That’s after the program qualified for just six bowls in the previous 103 years.

And during the past three seasons, which some fans have seen as disappointing, the Badgers have managed Sun Bowl and Alamo Bowl victories. Alvarez pointed out that during that time, the Badgers have been competitive and that close games simply have not gone their way.

“This is a program that didn’t have much tradition until we got here,” he said. “We had a lot of success and won three Rose Bowl games, yet we’re competitive every week, and we’re in bowl games … Two years in the last 11 that we weren’t there, we were right there. We’re very competitive, we’d like to be better, we’d like our record to be better. People want to stay there. That’s very hard to do.”

Nonetheless, Alvarez hinted that the program has declined since the Rose Bowl years, partly due to what he called poor recruiting classes in ’98 and ’99. Those players came in starting in 2000.

But, he said, any decline is due to the Big Ten’s stiff competition and the cyclical nature of football success, something every program deals with.

“All you have to do is take a look around the country. It’s cyclical how programs go,” he said. “Look at Penn State. There is no more fertile recruiting ground than Penn State, and no one’s done more for football than Joe Paterno, but they’re going to have their third losing season in four years. Oklahoma, as good as they are right now, they went through a 10-year drought. It goes on and on.”

Quarterback Jim Sorgi, who sat and watched the Badgers win a Rose Bowl in ’99 as a redshirt freshman, still believes this year’s team is as talented as that one.

“I think the talent level is the same, if not better,” he said. “Those teams that won Rose Bowls, those are special teams that come along. You always think you have one of those teams, and I still think this team could have been one of those teams. You have to put it in perspective. You have to look at the games that we’ve lost, how close they are, how one play here or there, it’s different.”

For Sorgi, who’s about to play his final three games as a Badger, not starting for a team that won a Rose Bowl will not diminish his feelings for his UW career.

“I’m proud to say I started in ’99 and ended in 2003,” he said. “I’m proud to say I played here during those years. They might not have been the best years of football this school has had, but I’m going to hold my head up high and say I was on those teams, because those teams had a lot of character.”

Although disgruntled fans who only remember the past three-and-half years may disagree, Sorgi vehemently rejected that Wisconsin football is on the decline.

“The program is not in a state of decline,” he said. “You’ve got good players here, good coaches and a good program. A program that’s going to continue to go to bowl games and win football games. It’s kind of a ridiculous thing to say that the program is in decline.”