Be honest, the thought of defeat never crossed your mind.

The Rose Bowl tickets were booked. The apparel purchased in hoards. The excitement mounting after an astounding 201 points were scored in the final three weeks of the regular season. The running game executing like a flat out machine. Pasadena was just going to be the next stop on the Badgers’ road to BCS glory.

When it was all said and done, the confetti would fall and a fan base would celebrate one of the greatest years in program history.

But when the Rose Bowl trophy was presented, Badger fans weren’t the ones celebrating that special season.

Instead, there was nothing but blank stares. The clock ran out and the purple corner of the stadium erupted.

Texas Christian University won. It was the Horned Frogs’ moment. And it hit everyone wearing red like a ton of bricks.

“Of course, it hurts. It’s painful, it’s probably the worst thing ever,” running back Montee Ball said.

“It’s pretty sickening,” safety Jay Valai said.

“It’s just real hard to take,” cornerback Niles Brinkley said.

Failure to finish the job elicits that kind of response. And as harsh as that sounds, it was the mindset of every player and coach heading into the matchup with TCU.

Athletic director Barry Alvarez made it very clear before the team departed for California: Getting to the Rose Bowl wasn’t good enough.

Unfortunately for the masses, a two-point loss in The Granddaddy of Them All will define the 2010 Badgers. But those of us who’ve followed this program closely can’t allow that to be the case.

The 2010 Badgers may not own the Rose Bowl rings the 1993, 1998 and 1999 squads own, and that’s fine. The teams with rings are undoubtedly in a different class.

But Wisconsin enjoyed a remarkable season here in Bret Bielema’s fifth year as head coach, and it’s a season worth celebrating. UW’s accomplishments can’t be brushed aside after a two-point loss to an undefeated team. There is no shame in losing to TCU, who finished second nationally in the polls.

So with the 21-19 loss now well into the past, just think about how far this team and this program have come in recent years.

Remember the mood surrounding the program in 2008 – a year that has been referenced every step of the way this season. That 48-7 thrashing delivered by Penn State at Camp Randall where the Nittany Lions scored at will. The lifeless 38-16 defeat in Iowa City the very next week.

That team was lost. There was no discipline, no maturity, no chemistry and quite honestly, no hope.

Wisconsin ended that regular season with a one-point overtime victory over Cal Poly of the Football Championship Subdivision. The Mustangs’ kicker missed three extra points. The Badgers were lucky to be bowl eligible, and it showed in a miserable outing against Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl.

Walking out of Camp Randall Stadium that night after Cal Poly, all Badger fans could do was shake their heads and smile in disbelief.

Two years later, I caught myself doing the same thing – staring at that breathtaking Rose Bowl stadium, shaking my head, smiling in disbelief.

In just two seasons, UW went from a laughingstock to a team the experts were calling a BCS power.

And so many of the leaders of the 2010 Badgers emerged after playing minor roles during the 2008 disaster. But they were members of that disjointed locker room, watching things fall apart. They knew that team was just a group of individuals wearing the same uniform. They experienced that culture and wanted to change it.

As hard as Bielema may have tried to transform the mindset of his football team, he knew any real progress would have to start with the players taking ownership. They would have to accept their flaws and work tirelessly to correct them.

That’s exactly what this senior class did.

“We don’t regret that 7-6 season because it taught us a lot about the game of football and life,” quarterback Scott Tolzien said.

Accountability was restored, leadership was bountiful and fans were treated to a conference title season.

They started playing for one another and it showed. They were fun to be around and even more fun to watch on Saturdays.

“This team is definitely a family,” senior tight end Lance Kendricks said. “We worked together all off-season and guys that you never think would mesh meshed very well and became good friends. I think that’s what it is, the camaraderie, of all the guys and being together, that’s definitely what I’ll miss most.”

All the camaraderie wasn’t enough to pull out a win in the Rose Bowl. The Badgers were beaten and that painful memory is something each of those players will forever live with.

So call it failure if you’d like. Say the 2010 Badgers were three points away from something special. But if you do so, make sure you remember to call them Big Ten champions. Remember that monumental win over No.1 Ohio State and the one-point victory over Iowa the very next week.

Remember where this program was two years ago, and think about the young talent that remains and the direction this program appears to be heading.

That ought to make you shake your head and smile.

Max is a senior majoring in journalism. Still having trouble getting over Wisconsin’s heartbreaking Rose Bowl loss? E-mail him at [email protected].

We're hiring! Check out our jobs page. Applications due April 27th. badgerherald.com/about/get-involved/hiring.