Last season, both Iowa and Northwestern were bowl eligible (6-5) heading into their regular season finales (Iowa home against Western Michigan, Northwestern at Illinois). Both teams lost and both failed to secure bowl invitations in a loaded Big Ten conference.
If the BCS only takes one Big Ten team, the Badgers (6-5, 3-5 Big Ten) would be fighting seven other conference teams for one of six other Big Ten births. With a win over I-AA Cal Poly this Saturday at Camp Randall at 2:30 pm, Wisconsin would likely be headed to Tempe for the Insight Bowl on Jan. 31.
"We all know what's around the corner," senior Jonathan Casillas said. "If we don't win this game, our season is probably over. A 6-6 team in the Big Ten isn't guaranteed anything. That's all looming right now and we're definitely thinking about that right now."
Wisconsin had to work hard just to gain its eligibility. After starting out 3-0, Wisconsin lost four-straight games to open the conference season (worst slide since 1996) before going 3-1 down the stretch.
Five of UW's 10 games this season have been decided by three points or less and Wisconsin lost three Big Ten games by a total of six points.
"We've lost five games now so it tells me that we're playing good but we're just not finishing late in games," junior Shane Carter said. "Finishing is something we have to emphasize for the future and especially in this game Saturday. We have to find a way to win. We're obviously not happy with how it went so we just have to learn from it and finish out the right way."
The wave of emotions isn't just limited to the season in general, but each game down the stretch. Save the Indiana game, Wisconsin's last three games have all come down to the final possession before the outcome was decided. Against Minnesota, the Badgers were lucky to be in that position at all, as three first-half turnovers dug a 14-point halftime hole.
But while the early-season addition of the Badgers may have folded, Wisconsin and its offense have found its rhythm, particularly in the second half where UW has outscored its opponents 59-11 in the final 30 minutes the past two weeks.
In conference games, Wisconsin ranks second in the league in total offense (394.8 yards per game) and third in total defense (317.9 ypg).
"I think we've been more in a rhythm," senior tackle Eric Vanden Heuvel said. "I think we've been playing better as a team. I think a while ago, we were kind of playing as individuals for a while, and I think all the losses were kind of tearing us apart. But I think we've really come back together as a team (and) just understand our way of football."
While the Badgers value the fact that they are bowl eligible for a seventh-straight season, the longest such streak in school history and second longest in the Big Ten, Wisconsin also values the importance of representing its conference by beating teams from other conferences and divisions.
In regular-season play, Wisconsin has won 19 straight games against non-conference opponents. The Badgers last loss to a team outside the Big Ten came on Sept. 13, 2003 vs. UNLV. UW has won 32 of its last 34 home games against nonconference foes, dating back to 1995. A win would equal a perfect 4-0 conference record for the fourth-straight year.
"We want to make the Big Ten look the best we can," Carter said. "Obviously, there are a lot of good teams. When we go into another conference, we take pride in not only winning for Wisconsin, but representing the Big Ten."
Although the opponent, Cal Poly, is a I-AA school, the victory will be far from a formality.
Fresh off winning its third Great West title in the last five years, Cal Poly (8-1) is ranked third among that division's national poll and has enough wins to qualify for an at large in the Football Championship Subdivision national playoffs, which start a week from Saturday.
Having the top-ranked scoring offense (46.4 points per game) and total yards (493.7 yards per game) in the FCS, the Mustangs biggest offense weapon is Ramses Barden.
Breaking Jerry Rice's FCS record for catching a touchdown pass in 18 straight games, Barden, who is projected as a first day NFL draft pick in the spring, has 194 career receptions for a staggering 4,012 yards and 47 touchdowns.
"I can't tell you how many people on our team are excited to show Wisconsin fans, the Cal Poly following, the Wisconsin team that we've got just as much talent, just as much hunger to play the game, just as much competitiveness, and it's our opportunity to show it," Barden told reporters after the Mustangs beat UC-Davis, 51-28. "We've got people who've got an opportunity to continue playing professionally or what have you, and this is their opportunity to showcase themselves.
"This is our Appalachian State-Michigan," he added. "We've got a lot of guys looking to make a name for themselves. And the only way it's going to happen is if we execute, play our game and win."
Getting him the ball is senior quarterback Jonathan Dally who has completed 62 percent of this throws for 1,680 yards. Dally, the team's second-leading rusher, ran for 173 yards against UC-Davis. Maybe the most telling statistical entry is Dally's touchdown-to-interception ratio. Through nine games, he has thrown for 20 scores, while being intercepted just once in 156 passes.
"The quarterback does a great job of running the offense because he can run and throw," Carter said. "He's a well-rounded quarterback and plays a lot like the duel-threat cornerbacks we've seen this year."
Although having more talent than Cal Poly, which has an enrollment of 18,500 students and is located in San Luis Obispo, about 200 miles north of Los Angeles, the Badgers know that the results of the victory would be tenfold. UW would make a bowl game, send the seniors out of Camp Randall as winners and give the Badgers four wins in their last five games, equaling a ton of momentum going forward.
"Winning is always good. It's great and you're always looking forward to getting that victory," senior Allen Langford said. "For a University and a program, we're looking forward to getting to a bowl game and having the impact, that momentum, down the line."
Cal Poly (8-1) vs. Wisconsin (6-5, 3-5 Big Ten)
Date/Time - Saturday, November 22 at 2:30 p.m. CT
Arena – Camp Randall Stadium (80,321/FieldTurf)
Television - Big Ten Network (Mark Neely, Glen Mason and Ashley Russell)
Radio - Wisconsin Radio Network (Matt Lepay, Mike Lucas)
Series – First Meeting
This is the third straight season UW will be playing a team from the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA). The Badgers defeated Western Illinois, 34-10, in 2006 and The Citadel, 45-31, in 2007
Cal Poly defeated the only other Football Bowl Subdivision team on its schedule this season, San Diego State, 29-27 in the season opener, and is 3-4 in its last seven games against FBS schools. The Mustangs, currently ranked third in the FCS Coaches Poll, are riding a seven-game winning streak, averaging 51.6 points in those games.
Saturday is Senior Day at Camp Randall. Sixteen Badgers (Travis Beckum, Jonathan Casillas, Jason Chapman, Allan Evridge, Ryan Flasch, Andy Kemp, Allen Langford, DeAndre Levy, Josh Neal, Mike Newkirk, Dave Peck, Chris Pressley, Bill Rentmeester, Matt Shaughnessy, Kraig Urbik and Eric Vanden Heuvel) will be making their final home appearances.
Running back P.J. Hill needs just 38 rushing yards to go over 1,000 for the third consecutive season. Ron Dayne, the all-time leading rusher in FBS history, is the only other Badger to begin his career with three straight 1,000-yard campaigns.
In the last four games, UW's defense has limited its opponents to just 299.0 yards of total offense. The Badgers have held three of those four opponents to less than 100 yards on the ground (an average of 86.3 yards per game).
One of the biggest off-the-field concerns from a program perspective is the crowd that is going to be bidding adieu to Wisconsin's senior class on Saturday. According to UW officials, fewer than 200 tickets are available, all of which were returned by Cal Poly. However, considering Saturday is expected to be frigid and the opening day of the state's nine-day gun deer season, don't expect your typical party atmosphere.
Which is a shame, because this has the making a good, solid football game.
The key for this game is if the Badgers are going to be able to contain a solid Mustang offense that puts up a ton of points, a ton of yards and runs a Wing-T offense that the majority of the Badger defenders haven't seen or played against since high school.
On the same accord, Cal Poly has never seen a running game and running backs like P.J. Hill, John Clay and Zach Brown, who should be able to run the ball effectively against the Mustang front.
No point spread in games between different divisions but the Badgers should be the favorites. Part of me thinks that Cal Poly can have its way with the Wisconsin defense early, especially with how effective senior Jonathan Dally has been running the Mustang offense. The Badgers will need to be clicking for all four quarters, especially the offense, as UW can't afford to get into a shootout with this team.
UW will win this game if they run the football against this undersized defensive line and even a loss should still get Wisconsin to a bowl game. It would be border-line fitting, however, that a team that hasn't lived up to preseason expectations would lose this game, but the Badgers have improved over the past month and should win this game. If they don't, the coaches and seniors will never live it down.
Wisconsin 42, Cal Poly 31
Straight up: 9-2
Against the Spread: 7-4