MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin’s football program has participated in nine Rose Bowls and 18 January bowl games over the years. The Badgers have become a model of college football consistency, and as a result they’ve routinely positioned themselves to play in meaningful postseason contests.
But never before has Wisconsin played in a game as important or significant as the Big Ten Championship Game that will take place against Ohio State on Saturday night in Indianapolis. Wisconsin is ranked No. 4 in the College Football Playoff poll, while Ohio State is No. 8. A victory assures the Badgers a spot in the four-team playoff, where they’ll be two wins from capturing the first national championship in program history.
I asked Wisconsin players this week whether they thought they’d be playing the biggest game in Wisconsin history on Saturday night. And while they don’t necessarily have a firm grasp of more than 100 years of Badgers football, they were willing to try to put it in some context.
“Definitely,” Badgers left tackle Michael Deiter told me. “I think it’s a game that’s got a ton around it. And it’s something you have to acknowledge. I couldn’t say that it wasn’t. It’s definitely the biggest game I’ve ever played in.”
Added quarterback Alex Hornibrook: “We’ve played in the Big Ten Championship, obviously. But with the implications after this game, it’s probably a little bit bigger.”
That’s an understatement.
The only other game that likely rivals this one is when No. 2 Wisconsin played No. 1 USC in the 1963 Rose Bowl — the first 1-2 bowl matchup in college football history. USC won that game 42-37. But voters in the Associated Press and United Press International polls voted on a national champion after the regular season and before teams competed in bowl games, so even a Badgers win wouldn’t have resulted in an official title. USC already had been crowned No. 1, regardless of the outcome.
So much has changed in the college football landscape over the last 55 seasons. During that stretch, Wisconsin simply hasn’t been close enough to seriously contend for a national title despite fielding quality teams.
Consider that when Barry Alvarez led a resurgent Wisconsin program to the 1994 Rose Bowl — its first since that memorable 1963 affair — the Badgers were ranked No. 9 in the Associated Press Top-25 poll and finished sixth. And while the game represents a turning point in the program for a certain generation of fans, there was never a national title on the line.
Wisconsin again was No. 9, this time in the first year of the BCS standings, when the Badgers went to the Rose Bowl following the 1998 season. One year later, the Badgers were No. 7 in the final BCS standings before the Rose Bowl.
During Bret Bielema’s first season as coach in 2006, Wisconsin lost only one game. But that team was No. 7 in the final BCS poll before it defeated Arkansas in the Capital One Bowl to finish 12-1. Again, no legitimate national championship implications.
The 2010 season was the closest Wisconsin came to vying for a national title, when the Badgers reached No. 5 in the BCS poll before they lost in the Rose Bowl to TCU. In 2011, Wisconsin was No. 10 in the final BCS standings when it earned a trip to the Rose Bowl.
And just last season, Wisconsin was No. 6 in the College Football Playoff rankings entering the Big Ten Championship Game against Penn State. But even then, a victory was unlikely to vault the Badgers into the playoff. Wisconsin lost, dropped to No. 8 and went on to win the Cotton Bowl.
“There’s been a lot of really big games and significant games in this program’s history,” Badgers defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said. “This is one of them. Pretty honored to be a part of it, and obviously the goal is to go out there and win it and make it more special.
“I don’t think you try to elevate it over any particular game. There’s a lot of big games that have put this program in the position we’re in right now. Hopefully this is a game to take you to the next step.”
Wisconsin has been knocking on the door of elevating itself into truly elite company for years. The Badgers entered the season with a record of 178-70 (.718 winning percentage) since the BCS era began in 1998. Only three other FBS programs during that span have a winning percentage above .700 and have not played for a title — Boise State, Georgia and TCU.
“All I know is we’re in the Big Ten Championship against a very good team,” Wisconsin inside linebacker T.J. Edwards said. “We’ve had a great season thus far, but this is our national championship.”
With one victory in the program’s most important game to date, Wisconsin can reach the playoff and finally earn an opportunity to play for the real thing.
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