Back-to-back Rose Bowl appearances go a long way in building a nationally recognized football brand. But in 2012, the Wisconsin football program has the chance to take a final, long-awaited step forward.

After spending years adjacent to the circle that surrounds college football’s “elite” programs, Wisconsin has the opportunity next season to finally anchor itself among the upper echelon of not just the Big Ten conference, but all of college football.

And a Heisman frontrunner coupled with a remarkably deep and talented defense may be just enough to finally bring the Badgers much-deserved validation as one of the conference’s perennial contenders. Wisconsin’s pursuit of becoming an elite program (? la Ohio State) has been a reappearing topic for years – including a recent ESPN college football roundtable – but next season it has the opportunity to capitalize on recent success and establish a spot on the national scene.

Analysts are quick to point out potential issues arising from the exodus of UW coaches this offseason, most notably offensive coordinator Paul Chryst. But the talent returning on both sides of the ball puts Wisconsin in great position for a third-consecutive BCS bowl appearance that could place them firmly among the Big Ten’s best and no longer keep them looming a half-step behind.

This chance at claiming a spot among the country’s best programs begins with one of the most dangerous players lining up in the backfield in all of college football – running back Montee Ball. After piling up simply absurd numbers in 2011 – 1,923 yards and 39 total touchdowns – the senior running back will be the unquestioned centerpiece of the Badgers’ offense next season.

Ball is the rare, once-in-a-decade player who can single-handedly carry the offense as a one-man touchdown machine. Although he’ll have a tough time surpassing the stats he managed in 2011, the senior’s speed and vision out of the backfield alone could earn Wisconsin a couple of victories. Beyond that, Ball’s name staying in the Heisman discussion all season will continue to elevate the image of Wisconsin football. Even if Danny O’Brien fails to exhibit the skills through the air he showed as a Maryland freshman in 2010, Ball will be ready to take a starring role in the Badgers’ offensive attack.

While the UW offense will likely struggle to match the 44.1 points per game it mustered under Russell Wilson’s heroic watch, it should be productive enough given the 2012 squad’s biggest improvement over last year’s team – defense.

Anchored by the relentless, hard-hitting duo that is Chris Borland and Mike Taylor, the Wisconsin defense already boasts two leading Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year candidates. As two proven playmakers that starred in their second season as every-game starters in 2011, the linebackers – aside from No. 28 – are the two players with the biggest hand in how the Badgers fare next season. With an exceptional ability to both wrap up runners in the backfield and keep up with receivers cutting across midfield, Borland and Taylor are the defensive stalwarts leading an aggressive, proven unit in 2012.

Lining up to the left and right of this dependable duo is a secondary that may allow Wisconsin to finally shake its notorious reputation for surrendering long, downfield passes with little resistance. Despite losing Aaron Henry and Antonio Fenelus to the NFL, a veteran group that includes Shelton Johnson and Marcus Cromartie could help the Badgers counter the spread attacks that have grown increasingly popular in the Big Ten.

Add in a defensive line that, despite losing two reliable starters in Patrick Butrym and Louis Nzegwu, is loaded with size and experience, and 2012 will likely feature the most well-rounded defense to grace the Camp Randall field in years.

It’s no secret that O’Brien, unless he makes unprecedented steps in his game this summer, has no chance at equaling the prolific Wilson-led Wisconsin offense of 2011. But its most important component in Ball, along with a defensive that offers defensive stalwarts and a wealth of experience, could be the necessary recipe for scaling the stairs to college football’s elite stage.

With an older, revamped Ohio State squad headlined by Urban Meyer’s arrival in Columbus as head coach, the Buckeyes would be the early favorites in the Leaders Division. But with NCAA penalties keeping the Buckeyes out of the Big Ten Championship next year, a third straight trip (let’s hope this one ends better) to Pasadena is well within reach.

Wisconsin football has rested on the edge of greatness before, most recently during the Ron Dayne years and two straight Rose Bowl victories following the 1998 and 1999 seasons. But those were followed up with underwhelming wins in the Sun and Alamo Bowls, which quickly derailed any discussion of the Badgers earning a spot among the Big Ten’s best. It took a full decade for Wisconsin to return to a BCS bowl, and it now once again sits at a critical crossroads for the program.

A 9-3 regular season campaign that lands UW in the Outback Bowl or even the Capitol One Bowl – the top game for a Big Ten team outside of the BCS bowls – would restart the entire this lengthy journey to the top. However, leaving Indy Dec. 1 with another Big Ten Championship trophy in hand would change Wisconsin’s identity from that of a respected Big Ten program to one of the conference’s top dogs.

As the Badgers send their first kickoff soaring through Camp Randall Sept. 1, they’ll be playing for something bigger than another Big Ten crown. Wisconsin will be playing for the right to call itself a nationally renowned squad known for more than burly offensive lineman and sporadic Rose Bowl appearances. And in 2012, they just might be able to fit all the pieces together into a lasting portrait of success.

Ian is a junior majoring in journalism. Think the Badgers are ready to take the next step and claim their spot on the national college football landscape? Or is there still work to be done? Let him know at [email protected]