The Badgers need some help but with the first BCS standings coming out Monday, Wisconsin can entertain thoughts of playing in the Orange Bowl—this season's National Championship game—on Jan. 4.
Yes, the same Wisconsin football team that most prognosticators picked to finish between fourth and sixth in the Big Ten is a legitimate national title contender after beating previously undefeated Purdue 20-17 in West Lafayette, Ind., Saturday evening.
Preseason prognostications, however, are what could hold the Badgers back from the pinnacle of college football if they do run the table in their four remaining regular-season games. For in college football, champions are not only made on the gridiron but in the offices of media and coaching pollsters.
Wisconsin, which went just 7-6 last season, opened the 2004 campaign ranked No. 21 in the Associated Press Top 25 and No. 22 in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches' Poll and has steadily climbed the charts since. The Badgers (4-0 Big Ten, 7-0 overall) are now No. 6 in the AP and No. 7 according to the coaches.
Even if Wisconsin finishes the regular season a perfect 11-0, the team may be shut out of a title shot. Of the seven remaining unbeaten Division I-A teams, four—USC, Oklahoma, Miami (Fla.) and Auburn—are ahead of the Badgers in both polls. None of those teams has more than two ranked opponents left on its schedule. With one loss on its record, Florida State is No. 5 in both polls. UW also trails 5-1 Georgia in the coaches' poll. The Bulldogs face Auburn Nov. 13, but none of the remaining unbeaten teams will match each other before bowl season.
The Badgers, however, could care less. The team has maintained its 1-0 personality throughout the current seven-game winning streak and they showed no signs of wavering from that attitude Saturday night, even after back-to-back emotional, come-from-behind victories at Ohio State and at Purdue.
"Coach [Barry Alvarez] made a point that obviously we've had a philosophy all year, ‘1-0, do what we need to do to get this next game,'" defensive coordinator Bret Bielema said. "I told them enjoy the next 24 hours and obviously the Northwestern game takes an even bigger light now."
"It is 1-0. It doesn't matter—that's always been our philosophy," kicker Mike Allen said. "That will be our philosophy. Northwestern's a high-powered offense and they beat us last year."
From the outside, however, it is easy to look ahead. Wisconsin's four remaining opponents will all present a challenge, however, beginning with the Wildcats, who upset Wisconsin 16-7 in Evanston last season. After their bye week, the Badgers face Minnesota at home before traveling to Michigan State and Iowa.
Only one of the four is ranked (Iowa, and only in the AP), but all have .500 or better records in both conference play and overall and three of the four beat Wisconsin a year ago.
But this year has been different from the beginning. Last year Wisconsin struggled with injuries and failed to win games in the fourth quarter. This season the Badgers have not flinched in the face of any challenge and have not lost a fourth quarter.
"It is just a different total atmosphere from the first two years I been here," junior receiver Brandon Williams said. "I just can't put my finger on it. We just make it happen."
Through seven games, Wisconsin has displayed a championship combination of talent, determination, perseverance and good fortune, finding ways to win games regardless of circumstance.
The Badgers fell behind in all three of their road games this season and needed fourth-quarter comebacks to defeat Arizona and Purdue. The win in Tucson was compounded by an 88-minute lightning delay. The win Saturday in West Lafayette came despite trailing 17-7 with eight minutes left to play; while defensive ends Erasmus James and Jonathan Welsh and tailback Anthony Davis were sidelined with injuries.
"Kids just kept believing," Bielema said. "They understand what we're trying to do and how we're trying to do it."
"What can you say? We've got a special group of guys who keep competing and play every play," offensive coordinator Brian White said.
The never-say-die dynamic began in offseason workouts last winter and has continued through spring practices, summer conditioning, fall camp and the season thus far.
"This team has a lot of character," cornerback Scott Starks said. "We worked on finishes all spring and all winter and you can just see from the results in the game. We are finishing every game we play no matter what the score is."
Oddly enough, in both the Arizona and Purdue games Wisconsin won after an opponent's missed field goal in the game's final moments followed a Badger missed extra point.
"We've had so many bounces against us. That kid kicked a game-winning field goal against us last year," Allen said, referring to Purdue's Ben Jones, who missed a 42-yard attempt Saturday. "It was about time we got it to bounce our way."
Fate may be on Wisconsin's side. Saturday, the Badgers also benefited from Purdue's soft coverage and safety Kyle Smith's dropped interception on the Badgers' fourth-quarter touchdown drive.
"I just believe in our football players and our team," White said. "Some people call it fate but you've got to create those things and you got to make those plays to force it to happen and we did."
Great teams do tend to make their own luck. But do the Badgers have to pinch themselves after scoring two touchdowns in the final five-and-a-half minutes to win Saturday?
"Yeah, I think you do," White said. "I think you need to slap yourself."
Wisconsin could taste the Oranges
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