I waited a long time for this. Or rather, we waited a long time for this. We as in any other seniors here at Wisconsin.

I started college at UW in the fall of 2007. The Badgers had just finished a 12-1 season, setting a school record for wins and beating Arkansas in the Capital One Bowl. Bret Bielema’s first season was a charmed one, and it lead to the UW being ranked in the top 10 of most preseason polls.

Of all the na?ve dreams I had as a freshman – not limited to epic Animal House-style toga parties or cruising to an easy 4.0 – the most wistful of them all might have been a Rose Bowl in my first year of college. There was a loss to Illinois. Then one to Penn State. Two weeks to catch my breath, then another loss to Ohio State.

So much for that Big Ten title.

Then 2008 rolls around and again, the Badgers get some preseason love. Bielema has said himself that he considered that 2008 team with P.J. Hill, Matt Shaughnessy, DeAndre Levy and Travis Beckum to be his most talented squad. Too bad leadership and wins aren’t synonymous with talent.

But again, the Badgers are steamrolled by Penn State and Iowa, losing heartbreakers to Ohio State and Michigan State. The whole collapse was started with that disaster at the Big House and almost ended with a loss to Cal Poly of the FCS.

Now we have problems. The only thing keeping my football pride going is the fact most of my friends back home are Gopher fans. Lolz.

It took a 5-0 start to enter the rankings in 2009, and despite losses to Ohio State and Iowa, as well as a classic slip-up in Evanston, UW had a 9-3 record and a chance to make a statement against Miami in the Champs Sports Bowl. And now with the ‘U’ reeling and coach-less, it’s all about the ‘W.’

But it can be forgiven if Badger fans were a little cautious, a little guarded about getting back on the Bielema Train in 2010. Like getting back together with any ex, there are concerns and suspicions. I don’t need that broad stealing any more of my DVDs. But there’s also still hope.

So it was hoped that John Clay and Scotty Tolzien and that mammoth offensive line could get UW back to the BCS. A visit from the Buckeyes loomed large, with a trip to Kinnick looking even more daunting.

We’ll just fast-forward past all the celebrating and get to today. Wisconsin has finally taken the step everyone thought the Badgers would take after 2006. It only took my whole undergraduate career to do it.

Following the Big Ten-clinching win over Northwestern last Saturday, Bielema told his team there’s no reason to wait another 10 years to do this.

I agree.

It took four years to make the step again from program-specific success to national success. Barring any surprises this weekend, Wisconsin is heading to Pasadena for the first time since the 1999 season.

So what next?

How about taking the next step: being a consistent Big Ten contender. Year in and year out, not just at the end of decades.

There is no doubt that Wisconsin’s phenomenal senior class – Tolzien, Lance Kendricks, Gabe Carimi, John Moffitt, among many others – was a huge reason for the Badgers’ success this season. Juniors John Clay, J.J. Watt and Nick Toon might be among those who depart along with UW’s 14 seniors.

But this incoming freshman class is pretty easily the best of Bielema’s tenure. The Badgers do a great job of recruiting instate. But to give you an idea of how much higher they’re shooting, three of Florida’s top recruits were in Madison for GameDay and the OSU game.

Right now, UW has a solid crop of three-star recruits, which is fine for two reasons. One, Wisconsin tends to make the most of its talent. Remember Jim Leonhard (walk-on) and O’Brien Schofield (three-star)? Two, UW looks to be avoiding the trap it fell into when trying to recruit elite talent after Barry’s consecutive Rose Bowl wins. Bielema isn’t recruiting at a Jim Tressel-level yet, and he probably never will.

Avoiding a hangover in 2011 could help change that.

UW still has a strong offensive line, with Peter Konz and Kevin Zeitler anchoring the crew. Montee Ball and James White will still be here. The defense should only be better with Aaron Henry improving at safety and a solid combo of Antonio Fenelus and Devin Smith at the cornerback positions. If Watt decides to return to keep the defensive line intact and Chris Borland is healthy, this could be one of the conference’s top units.

The talent is there, and in the new divisional setup, Ohio State – Tressel is just 4-4 against UW – is the only real competitor besides Wisconsin for the next few years. And if the Badgers live up to expectations, they should get a chance to settle the “sole Big Ten champs” thing in Indianapolis next December.

Taking the next step took a while. Wisconsin thought it was going to do it in 2000. The Badgers thought they would do it again in 2007. Finally, 10 years later, this could be the time they finally do it for good.

Bielema is right. There’s no need for Wisconsin to wait another 10 years for something like this to happen. It should be one.

Adam is a senior majoring in journalism. Is UW over the hump for good? Email him at [email protected] or tweet @AdamJSHolt