When the 2004 season began, few thought it would end in Pasadena for the UW football team. The preseason polls had Michigan, Ohio State and Iowa all ranked ahead of Wisconsin and the preseason standings projected the Badgers to finish third in the Big Ten.

With a first-year starter under center, an inexperienced set of linebackers and a new defensive coordinator, the Badgers entered the season with a number of major question marks. When Anthony Davis went down in the opener, Wisconsin seemed destined for disaster.

Without their offensive centerpiece, the Badgers were forced to rely on phenomenal defensive performances to survive. Though they managed to defeat UNLV and escaped with a victory over Arizona, Wisconsin seemed to be on the verge of an almost inevitable collapse. The Badgers certainly did not look like a team that would make a run at the conference title.

However, after knocking off conference juggernaut Purdue Saturday, the Badgers are poised to do just that. With just four games left in the conference schedule, Wisconsin is the Big Ten front-runner as the only remaining undefeated team in the conference.

The defense has never let up, the offense has come alive and the Badgers have moved from uncertainty to dominance.

Believe it or not, Wisconsin is now the favorite to advance to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1999.

The Badgers now control their own destiny. If Wisconsin takes care of business the rest of the way, Alvarez and Co. will take home their first conference title since the Ron Dayne era.

After defeating Ohio State and Purdue on the road in consecutive weeks, Wisconsin has already overcome its most daunting challenge. To put this feat in perspective, Wisconsin had never won consecutive road games over teams ranked among the top 20 in the nation until this season.

While the floundering Buckeyes, who now hold a 0-3 conference mark, were vastly overrated when the Badgers took them down in week six, a win in Columbus is never easy to come by. And no one will doubt that the Boilermakers were the team to beat in the Big Ten when the Badgers defeated them in West Lafayette.

If the Badgers continue to play the way they have through the first four conference games, the only thing that will keep Wisconsin from the Rose Bowl is a trip to the BCS championship game.

However, if the Badgers falter even slightly they may lose their shot at Pasadena. Though the marquee matchups are behind them, each of the Badgers’ remaining opponents is capable of ending Wisconsin’s improbable run.

First on the docket is an underrated Northwestern squad that has defeated the Badgers in the teams’ last two meetings. The Wildcats have already proven themselves as a giant-killer this season, defeating then No. 7 Ohio State to begin the Buckeyes’ three-game losing streak.

The Wildcats feature a dangerous offensive combination with tailback Noah Herron and quarterback Bret Basanez. Herron ranks second in the conference in rushing (112 yards per game) and Basanez is the Big Ten’s second-most productive gunslinger (264.3 yards per game). Herron also ranks second in the Big Ten in touchdowns, with nine in just six games.

If the Badgers managed to contain Heisman candidate Kyle Orton, who averages 48.5 more yards per game than Basanez and has thrown more than twice as many touchdowns this season, and wide-out Taylor Stubblefield, who leads the conference in touchdowns with 11 in six games, they should be able to handle Basanez and Herron.

However, the Badgers can not afford an emotional hangover after their remarkable come-from-behind victory in West Lafayette. It will take another serious effort to defeat the Wildcats, who cannot be taken lightly. Just ask Jim Tressel.

If the Badgers make it past Northwestern, they will face another talented group in the Minnesota Gophers. The Gophers possess one of the most phenomenal tailback tandems in recent memory in Laurence Maroney and Marion Barber III. Maroney leads the Big Ten in rushing with an average of 124.1 yards per game and Barber III ranks fourth with an average of 96.9.

As you may have guessed, Minnesota leads the Big Ten in rushing, averaging 59.7 yards per game more than the nearest team in the conference. The Gophers average 104.5 yards more than the Badgers on the ground.

Even Wisconsin’s dominant front four, which has held opponents to just 80.6 rushing yards per game this season, will have its hands full against a running game of Minnesota’s caliber, especially if the injuries to James and Welsh have any lingering effects.

Fueled by a seemingly unstoppable running game, Minnesota is averaging 33.4 points per game, second only to Purdue in the Big Ten. Though the Gophers looked downright awful this week, losing 51-17 to Michigan State, Minnesota can be awfully dangerous when they show up.

Should the Badgers survive their meeting with the Gophers, they will still have to face Michigan State and Iowa on the road to complete their Rose Bowl run. Michigan State has flown under the radar this season, but they showed what they are capable of this week by dismantling the Gophers by more than 30 points. If the Badgers hope to avoid a similar fate, they can’t look past the Spartans in week 10.

Wisconsin’s final obstacle may be the most difficult remaining challenge on the schedule. Drew Tate torched the Buckeyes’ secondary for 331 yards and three touchdowns as Iowa crushed Ohio State 33-7 Saturday.

After a tough loss to Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich., Iowa has won two straight at home in convincing fashion, making Kinnick Stadium an imposing venue for any opponent. The Badgers will have to be on top of their game to leave Iowa City with a victory.

Wisconsin still has a lot of work to do, but a return to the Rose Bowl is certainly within reach. With the nation’s top defense and an offense that has shown a flair for the dramatic, the Badgers are in the driver’s seat heading into the second half of the conference schedule. It’s time to start believing.

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