In just his third season of head coaching and with only 28 victories under his belt, Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema knows that he and the Badgers are under plenty of pressure to end the 2008 season on the right note.
"After what we've experienced this year," Bielema said, "the emphasis on winning is the only thing that matters to us."
After a tumultuous season that saw the Badgers endure a 0-4 start to the conference season and cries from Badger Nation that Bielema be fired, Wisconsin has a chance to end the season on a four game winning streak and head into the off season with a bounce in its step.
"It wasn't a year exactly how we wanted it to be, but finishing up strong in a bowl game would give us a lot of momentum and get us prepared," safety Chris Maragos said. "When you lose a bowl game, you have to think about it all winter, all spring football, all summer conditioning and all fall camp. Just getting off on a good foot would be tremendous."
The Badgers (7-5) have that chance as Wisconsin will make its fifth straight post season appearance in the state of Florida, taking on Florida State (8-4) this Saturday afternoon in the Champs Sports Bowl.
Once sitting at 4-5, the Badgers were once thought to be a long shot just to make it to a bowl game until their three game winning streak resurrected their season, made them eligible for a bowl game for a school-record seventh straight season and sent the Badgers back to Orlando for the third time in four years, a city where UW is 2-0.
"Anytime you get to go to Florida for a bowl game and play a quality opponent, it's a fun opportunity for the guys," senior linebacker DeAndre Levy said. "Orlando is a cool environment with good weather and a fun place to play. For all the seniors, it's going to be a great opportunity for us to get one more shot at it."
One of the key factors for UW down the stretch was limiting the run game, as the Badgers held opponents to 100 yards rushing or less three times in their final five games.
For the season, Wisconsin ranks fourth in the Big Ten in total defense this season, allowing 322.3 yards per game, an improvement of more than 30 yards per game, and didn't allow an opponent to rack up 400 yards of total offense or more, something last year's team did four different occasions.
"People said our defense took a step back this season or we didn't play as well," Levy said. "If you look at the numbers, that's not true. Sure we struggled at points during some games or during some stretches but at the end of the season when it mattered most, we got the job done."
If UW wants to get the job done and point the ship in the right direction for 2009, Wisconsin will have a tough task against the speed and multiple-look offense of the home state Seminoles, who are also looking to finish this season the right way.
Losing three of their last five games, including a 30-point drubbing to No.2 Florida in their last game, the Seminoles have plenty of weapons that make their offense tough to corral. Florida State rushed for 2,194 yards (their highest total in six years) and has senior Antone Smith to thank for it, as the Florida native rushed for 753 yards and 14 touchdowns.
"The first thing you notice when you flip on the film is they have athletes and they have speed and they have a running back that's pretty good in Smith with his speed and his strength," Maragos said. "Looking all around at them, they have some playmakers and some athletes that can do some good things."
Much like Wisconsin, Florida State relied on its running game because of inconsistencies at the quarterback position, as sophomore quarterback Christian Ponder threw more interceptions (13) than touchdowns (12).
Entering the bowl game, Florida State ranks 87th in the nation with 185.8 passing yards per game while Wisconsin ranks 82nd with 192.8 yards. While both teams are proficient running the ball, both are solid stopping the run (Florida State ranks 34th, holding opponents to 126.8 yards per game, and Wisconsin ranks 43rd at 133.3 yards).
Although their bowl game is back in Florida and not Pasadena as originally expected, Wisconsin got the best of all words – a quality opponent, the best bowl game possible and are entering the game playing the best they have all season. The key now is if the Badgers can sustain the momentum.
"I know our kids will be especially amped up to have an opponent like Florida State, the history they've had and to play them in their home state," Bielema said. "This is great opportunity to play very good football team that has won a lot of football games this year, and be able to go out on a winning note against a quality program."
Wisconsin (7-5, 3-5 Big Ten) vs. Florida State (8-4, 5-3 ACC)
Date/Time - Saturday, December 27 at 3:30 p.m. CT
Arena – Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium, Orlando, Fla. (capacity: 65,438 / natural grass)
Television - ESPN (Brad Nessler, Bob Griese, Paul Maguire and Holly Rowe)
Radio - Wisconsin Radio Network (Matt Lepay and Mike Lucas) / ESPN Radio (Dave Lamont, Robert Smith and Ted Gangi)
Series – First Meeting
Wisconsin enters the Champs Sports Bowl having won its last three games. There are only 11 teams in the country with longer current winning streaks.
UW has the second-best record in the Big Ten over the past five seasons (47-16, .746), trailing only Ohio State.
Six of the Badgers' 12 games this season have been decided by three points or less (UW is 3-3 in those games). That is the most games decided by a field goal or less in school history.
The Badgers are participating in their 14th bowl game in the past 16 seasons, including their school-record seventh consecutive appearance this year. That is the second-longest active bowl streak among Big Ten schools, trailing only Ohio State's nine-year streak. It is also tied for the 13th-longest active streak in the country.
Barry Alvarez, Wisconsin's head coach from 1990-2006 and now its Director of Athletics, owns the highest winning percentage in NCAA history among coaches with at least 11 bowl appearances (that is the minimum established in the NCAA Record Book). Alvarez guided the Badgers to an 8-3 (.727) mark in bowl games, including three Rose Bowl victories and a 24-10 triumph over No. 7-ranked Auburn in the 2006 Capital One Bowl (his final game as a coach). Prior to Alvarez's arrival at Wisconsin in 1990, the school had participated in just six bowl games and compiled a 1-5 record. Florida State's Bobby Bowden is fifth on the all-time Bowl winning percentage list (20-10-1, .661).
Wisconsin is 5-2 lifetime against members of the ACC Conference (2-0 vs. North Carolina, 1-0 Duke, 1-0 vs. Virginia and 1-2 vs. Miami (FL)) and 1-0 in bowl games, beating Duke 34-20 in the 1995 Hall of Fame Bowl in Tampa. UW hasn't played an ACC team since North Carolina in 2005.
With the matchup with Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl, Wisconsin will have faced the No. 1 (Joe Paterno of Penn State) and No. 2 (FSU's Bobby Bowden) coaches on the NCAA's Football Bowl Subdivision all-time wins list. Paterno has 383 career victories (including six against Wisconsin) while Bowden has 381 (and will face Wisconsin for the first time in the Champs Sports Bowl). UW is the first team to face Penn State and Florida State in the same season since Virginia in 2002 (coached by Al Groh).
Wisconsin has 10 players from the state of Florida on its roster, including starting middle linebacker Jaevery McFadden. Linebacker Elijah Hodge hails from St. Thomas, Virgin Islands but attended high school in Ft. Lauderdale. That makes 11 players on UW's roster that attended high school in Florida. That is tied with Illinois for the state that has produced the second-most current Badgers, trailing only the state of Wisconsin.
UW starting strong safety Jay Valai and Florida State starting quarterback Christian Ponder played together at Colleyville Heritage High School in Texas and both graduated in 2006.
It's not going to be easy matching up with the size and speed of Florida State's offense, who can give multiple looks and formation on every play. It's also not going to be easy playing the Seminoles a couple hours from home in Orlando in an environment that is going to be packed with Seminole fans.
The key for whoever wins this game is going to be who establishes the running game first, as both teams ranked in the top 45 in the nation in stopping the run. The big key for Wisconsin is continuing its late senior momentum, in which the Badgers won three straight games to get them the Champs Sports Bowl bid. The only caveat about the win streak was it was against a bad Indiana team, a flaying Minnesota team and against a Cal Poly team that, thanks to three missed extra points, handed the Badgers the win on a silver platter.
Florida State is a six-point favorite from the odds makers and the Seminoles are the number 19 pick in my bowl confidence pool. The game is going to be better than most people think, but it's going to be a disappointing way for the season to end for Wisconsin, losing a second tier bowl game 2,500 miles away from Pasadena.
Florida State 35, Wisconsin 24
Straight up: 10-2
Against the Spread: 8-4