Though it wasn't officially announced until Sunday afternoon, Bret Bielema figured No. 6 Wisconsin would be matched up with the loser of Saturday's Southeastern Conference Championship game in its grand return to the Capital One Bowl.
Though No. 12 Arkansas lost a 38-28 shootout to BCS Championship Game-bound Florida — and lost its last two games to end the regular season — Bielema sees great opportunity with his Badgers officially slated to meet the Razorbacks in Orlando Jan. 1.
"We're excited about the opportunity to play the University of Arkansas," Bielema said after Arkansas' formal selection to the Capital One Bowl. "I get excited, because they have a Heisman candidate in Darren McFadden, a guy that has put up a lot of impressive numbers. [They have] similarities to what we've been able to do, and we're excited about the opportunity to go back down to Orlando and prove what we do best."
In what should be the most highly touted non-BCS bowl game — and probably even more intriguing than a couple of those BCS matchups — Wisconsin and Arkansas represent a pair of college football programs that exceeded all preseason expectations and rose to the top of their respective programs.
"[Arkansas] coach [Houston] Nutt is probably extremely excited about his opportunity as well, because before the season, there were probably a lot of people that doubted what kind of results they were able to have this year, and they proved everybody wrong," Bielema said.
The Razorbacks started their season slowly with an embarrassing 50-14 loss to USC at home Sept. 2 but reeled off a 10-game winning streak that lasted into Thanksgiving weekend. Arkansas' tear included impressive victories over Auburn on the road (taking the Tigers out of the No. 2 ranking at the time) and Tennessee.
A 31-14 defeat of the Volunteers vaulted Arkansas to a No. 5 ranking and into national title game discussions, but a pair of disheartening losses to LSU and Florida helped the Tigers and Gators get into the BCS, leaving the Razorbacks of the five elite bowls.
McFadden, Arkansas' sophomore running back, has spearheaded Arkansas' fourth-ranked rushing attack nationally (tops in the SEC) and will represent the focal point of Bielema's defensive study for the Capital One Bowl.
"He looks to be a powerful runner; he's definitely got good speed, seems to have great vision," said Bielema, who related McFadden to Wisconsin's own tailback, P.J. Hill. "The one thing that jumps out to me, when you watch what he does is, he's able to — probably similar to P.J. — he's able to have a great burst as well as be able to knock some people down in the process, so it's going to be a unique challenge for our [defense].
"We need to be able to tackle effectively."
Arkansas rode their 'Wildcat' offensive style — using many different formations and movements before the snaps — to the tune of 30 points per game, second-best in the SEC.
"They're very, very versatile," Bielema said. "They put guys in different positions, have direct snaps to the running back and run certain plays … from a defensive standpoint, they're going to present a lot of challenges because they have so many players that do so many things so well."
One point of interest on Arkansas' offense is that Felix Jones, the Razorbacks' second option at tailback, ran for over 1,000 yards on the season and was the SEC's fourth-leading rusher, despite losing many carries to Arkansas' Heisman candidate.
"Obviously, McFadden's a key to their success, but they do it with a lot of different people in the running game with the wide receivers in motion, reverses, as well as the quarterback's running game," Bielema said.
Bielema said the matchup against Arkansas, a team that many believed late into the season had a shot at a championship game birth, will provide for a popular game across the country.
"Outside of the BCS mix, I'm sure this is a very exciting matchup for everybody."
Bowl prep 101
Barry Alvarez, Bielema's predecessor, was 8-3 in bowl games as a head coach. His .727 winning percentage is the highest in NCAA history for all coaches with 11 or more bowl-game appearances.
Bielema feels, with the experience of serving as a defensive coordinator under Alvarez for last year's Capital One Bowl and the 2004 Outback Bowl, he's better-equipped for the next four weeks of preparation before the game.
"It's been very beneficial for me to be a part of it for two years," Bielema said. "I am excited that I've been here for two years of preparation under [Alvarez] and [will] be able to carry that forward."
Even when Bielema worked as an assistant at Iowa and Kansas State, the former Hawkeye was indirectly receiving tutelage from the legendary Badger coach when it came to getting players ready for a postseason game.
"It's interesting to me, when I've been at other institutions, a lot of times, one of the conversation pieces of the staff has been, 'Why don't we touch base with somebody at Wisconsin,'" Bielema said. "But I'd had links because of coach [Bill] Snyder's connection and coach [Kirk] Ferentz's connection with coach Alvarez to talk to someone from their staff to find out exactly what they do in bowl preparation because of the success he's had."