The Badgers haven't won a bowl game since January 1, 2007 and haven't made a BCS game since 2000. Picked this season to finish in the lower tier of the Big Ten, Wisconsin football has already proven that last year's 7-6 record was just a blip on the radar, as the leadership of the 16 seniors on the UW roster has guided the Badgers and Badger Nation on a surprising journey.
Wisconsin has won nine games for just the tenth time since 1900, finished in the top half of the conference and finds itself in prime position to win its first game against a team ranked in the top 15 for the first time since November 2007.
"This would definitely be the icing on the cake," senior Chris Maragos said. "There have been so many things, but to go out with a win would be so awesome."
Win or lose, the Badgers are bowling for the eighth straight time, the second-longest active streak in the Big Ten and tied for the 13th-longest streak in the country.
Although UW coach Bret Bielema has put forth the challenge to the seniors of finishing what they started and to lead the Badgers the way they have, the success of Tuesday's Champs Sports Bowl against No.24 Wisconsin and No.14 Miami is not only about the Badgers returning to past season's successes, but to lay the foundation for a potentially huge 2010 season and catapulting UW to the front of the Big Ten pack.
Wisconsin's success this past season has been rooted in the success and development of its young players, as UW's two-deep depth chart is loaded with freshman and sophomores, sprinkled with a few senior contributors and has very few holes that will need to be filled between now and the start of the 2009 spring camp.
Of the 47 players listed on UW's final regular-season offensive and defensive depth chart, only eight were seniors and 26 were freshmen or sophomores, only six FBS teams and two BCS teams have more younger talent than UW.
"No matter what happens in the last game of the season, you still have to have the same umph in the off season," junior quarterback Scott Tolzien said. "That's what great players do and great teams do, no matter what the past is. They can throw it behind them and not worry about anything except getting better everyday. That's what we need to do the minute we get back (from Orlando)."
Ironically, Miami also had 26 freshmen or sophomores in its two deep, which makes the Champs Sports Bowl a meeting of the only two nine-win teams in the country with at least 25 underclassmen in their depth. The winner between the Badgers and the Hurricanes will likely find itself in the top 15 in a variety of next season's preseason polls. The loser, however, won't be far behind.
As much as UW's coaches and players have focused on the present, Bielema has often made it a habit in his dealings with the media to mention the young talent that fills UW's roster and how bright the future is for the Badgers heading into next season. He'll be the one guiding the ship to prove that his musings carry more weight than just a grain of salt.
The seniors who have carried the torch this season, keeping UW on the right track and avoiding looking back to last season and the humbling losses, won't be on the roster next season, but recognize the potential the team has to reach its first Rose Bowl since 2000.
Win or lose, what those younger players do with that potential after their leaders are gone is up to them, especially when they have a chance to return UW to select status. But if returning players want to honor the seniors, like sending them out with a bowl win over the Hurricanes, the underclassmen won't let 2010's potential go to waste.
"You can look at that and say there is a lot of potential there, and there is, but the reality of it is that's what it is – potential," Maragos said. "The reality of it is that those guys will have to go out and do something with that. You can have 26 guys in the two-deep that are underclassmen but if they don't go out and do anything with it, it doesn't matter. It will just be unresolved potential and an afterthought.
"It's going to be key for the younger guys to step up and follow suit from what they saw from the leaders this year and to carry on the tradition. If they do that, they'll have a ton of success. From the pieces that are in place for this program, it's going to be that way, they'll follow suit, come strong as leaders and the coaches have instilled a competitive nature. The future is real bright."