Champs not Chumps for UW

It may not be the bowl destination Wisconsin and its fans were hoping for at the outset of the season. But the 2009 Champs Sports Bowl gives the Badgers three big opportunities 1) avenge last season's bowl disaster 2) beat a ranked opponent 3) take a big first step toward the 2011 Rose Bowl.

MADISON – Standing with his back firmly planted against the wall at the Kohl Center last Saturday, recruiting coordinator Randall McCray was asked in passing if he was surprised the Badgers were heading back to Champs Sports Bowl for the second straight year.

McCray, with his typical southern outlook, responded casually, ‘Shoot, we're just happy to be playing again, whether it is in Orlando or Timbuktu."

The destination back to the Champs Sports Bowl might not excite the Badger Nation fan base, considering UW was blasted 42-13 in the 08 edition of the bowl game and UW has been to a Florida bowl game for six straight seasons and the city of Orlando for four of five years.

But while fans were hoping to spend their money on a January 1 Outback Bowl bid, the chance to go to Orlando is a much better match-up for fans and, more importantly, the Badgers.

The matchup between two 9-3 teams — 20th-ranked Wisconsin of the Big Ten and 14th-ranked Miami (Fla.) of the ACC on December 29 — is better than the New Year's Day matchup with Auburn (7-5) in the Outback Bowl that many predicted.

"Miami is a great opponent and you can't be disappointed playing a big-time opponent," said senior Chris Maragos of Miami, who opened as 2.5-point favorites. "The opponent means more than the name on the bowl game."

The Wisconsin-Miami matchup is one of only three non-BCS matchups that feature ranked opponents, joining the Capital One Bowl (No. 11 Penn State and No. 13 LSU), the Las Vegas Bowl (No. 15 Brigham Young and No. 16 Oregon State) and the Pacific Life Holiday Bowl (No.20 Arizona and No.22 Nebraska).

More importantly, it will give UW a chance to beat its first ranked team of the season (UW lost to No. 9 Ohio State, 31-13, in Week 6 and lost to No. 11 Iowa, 20-10, in Week 7). A win and UW, with 26 underclassmen in the two-deep depth chart (fifth most in FBS), finds itself with a ton of momentum heading into off-season workouts and, perhaps, a top15 ranking nationally in the preseason polls.

Thrown in the fact that the game is on national television and played in the hotbed of UW's recruiting efforts, it possesses a tremendous opportunity. A third-straight bowl loss in Florida, however, and the Badgers might have to pick up some of the pieces.

The Badgers haven't beaten a ranked team from a BCS conference since they beat Michigan in 2007, a string of six losses. Under UW coach Bret Bielema, UW is 2-8 against ranked teams from BCS conferences, a main reason why the fourth-year head coach hasn't endured himself to the entire Wisconsin fan base yet.

A victory against Miami will give UW a chance to get its signature win of the season, and give itself a big push forward into the off season.

"Winning a (bowl) game can do a lot for you in the off season," senior O'Brien Schofield said. "Lifting becomes a little easier, conditioning becomes easier because it puts your mind at ease knowing that you finished your season the right way."

Just like all the other ranked teams UW has faced, Miami won't be a push over. Quarterback Jacory Harris threw for 3,164 passing yards and 23 touchdowns to go along with 17 interceptions this season, leading the Hurricanes to a 5-3 conference record and a third-place finish in the Coastal Division of the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Miami, like Wisconsin, came into this season looking to take a step back towards the national prominence the program had under Coach Larry Coker earlier in the decade. The Hurricanes hadn't won 10-plus games since 2003, but have a chance to get that mark with a victory over Wisconsin.

Playing four ranked opponents to begin the season, Miami went 3-1, including a 33-17 win over ACC Champion Georgia Tech in Week 2. If UW fans aren't drawn back to Orlando, Miami could have a decided home-field advantage in its first bowl game in the city.

According to Coach Randy Shannon, Miami fans came out by the thousands for three non-conference road games this season, although all were in Florida.

"We expect our fans to be there," he said during a teleconference. "We played three games in the state when I think our fan base took over basically half the stadium. We're expecting the fan base to be in full control and try to take the whole stadium over."

This will be the last time a Big Ten team plays in the Champs, which has gone through several transformations since originating in Miami as the Blockbuster Bowl until moving to Orlando in 2001 as the Tangerine Bowl, before Champs Sports became the title sponsor in 2004, as the bowl contract between the two parties expires after this season. The Big Ten will also no longer have a tie in to the Alamo Bowl played in San Antonio.

The Big Ten's new bowl lineup for 2010 13, announced in October, adds the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla., the Texas Bowl in Houston and the Dallas Football Classic in Dallas.

The Big Ten will continue tie-ins with the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.; the Capital One Bowl in Orlando; the Outback Bowl in Tampa, Fla.; and the Insight Bowl in Tempe, Ariz. with a pending deal between the Big Ten and the Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl in Detroit.

The new schedule provides new locations and diversity for the conference. But if the Badgers want to reach the conference highest bowl next season, a victory against Miami will be a big first step in the general direction.

"It's important for the seniors to make sure we finish 2009 right, but it's important for the guys returning to start 2010 right," Maragos said. "We don't want to look ahead to anything but Miami, but winning (the bowl game) would give those guys a boost heading into next year."

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