MADISON, Wis. — Deep in the recesses of Ohio Stadium, Gary Andersen somberly addressed the possibility that Wisconsin’s Big Ten championship hopes had been crushed for good. It was only late September, yet he acknowledged Ohio State’s 31-24 victory against Wisconsin meant the Badgers no longer controlled their path to a fourth straight conference title.
Despite his misery, the Badgers’ first-year coach also maintained his optimism that the 2013 season wasn’t entirely lost.
“If we take care of business one game at a time, I like our chances,” he said then. “In some way out there, there will be another big game for us to play to put ourselves in a position to do some special things with this season. What those are, I don’t know, but these kids will come back. They’ll be ready to roll.”
More than two weeks later, it appears the Badgers once again are firmly planted on a path toward a special season. It still isn’t likely to result in a Big Ten championship or a Rose Bowl berth, but it very well could end with yet another BCS bowl appearance.
Wisconsin’s 35-6 drubbing of No. 19 Northwestern on Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium puts the Badgers (4-2) in position to finish undefeated the rest of the season because their schedule could not be any more favorable.
Wisconsin avoids playing Legends Division threats Nebraska, Michigan and Michigan State. And the team’s remaining Big Ten road games come against Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota — three teams the Badgers should handle. In fact, UW is likely to be favored in all six remaining regular-season games, which could help the Badgers to a 10-2 record.
What that record means in the bowl race is up for debate — even national pundits don’t have a clue where Wisconsin is headed.
Analysts from Sports Illustrated, Big Ten Network, CBSSports.com, College Football News and ESPN place Wisconsin in the Fiesta Bowl, Outback Bowl, Orange Bowl, Capital One Bowl and Sugar Bowl. Three of those games, however, are indeed BCS bowl games.
Here is what we know for certain: If Wisconsin wins at least nine regular-season games and is among the top 14 teams in the final BCS standings, the Badgers will be eligible for an at-large bid to a BCS bowl game — a scenario that seems even more likely given the victory against Northwestern.
Wisconsin currently ranks No. 28 in the unofficial BCS standings, which will be released officially for the first time Oct. 20. And the Badgers will have seven weeks to work their way back up the poll to make their sixth BCS game since the system was implemented in 1998.
“It’s definitely attainable,” Badgers running back James White said. “We have to keep our foot on the gas throughout the rest of the season, especially when November comes. That’s a very important part of the season. That’s definitely a goal of ours is to try to win out for the rest of the season.”
One BCS game you can likely rule out is the Rose Bowl because Ohio State is almost assuredly headed to Pasadena despite the possibility of an undefeated season. The Buckeyes already hold the head-to-head tiebreaker with Wisconsin and would need to lose twice to provide Wisconsin with an opportunity to reach the Big Ten championship and have a crack at the Rose Bowl.
Ohio State ranks fifth in the BCS standings behind Alabama, Oregon, Clemson and Florida State. And OSU will be hard-pressed to sneak into the top two ahead of an undefeated SEC, Pac-12 and ACC winner despite a perfect season, which would put the Buckeyes in the Rose Bowl and snap Wisconsin’s three-game appearance streak.
That leaves the Fiesta Bowl, Sugar Bowl and Orange Bowl as BCS possibilities for Wisconsin. The Big Ten’s No. 2 team has a tie in to the Capital One Bowl — a non-BCS game — to play the SEC’s No. 2. However, a team can also be plucked to a BCS bowl game provided it is in the top-14 of the final BCS standings.
It’s worth noting representatives from the Fiesta Bowl and Florida Citrus Sports, which operates the Capital One Bowl, were on hand for Wisconsin’s victory against Northwestern. Wisconsin has never played in the Fiesta Bowl and could be a good fit for the game, giving Badgers fans a chance to see a different venue for a change.
At this stage, Wisconsin can make a case for being the second-best team in the Big Ten now and in the future this season. Nebraska and Michigan State both are 2-0 in the Legends Division, while Wisconsin is 2-1 in the Leaders Division. But Nebraska still must play at Michigan and at Penn State and play home games against Northwestern and Michigan State. The Spartans, meanwhile, have road games against Nebraska and Northwestern and play Michigan at home.
Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland called it “well within reason” that the Badgers were the second-best conference team. But he didn’t stop there.
“I’m not so sure we’re not the best team in the conference,” Borland said. “We’re really improving. Maybe you can make an argument for that.”
Wisconsin’s two losses have come by a combined nine points, including a controversial 32-30 loss at Arizona State in which referees bungled the Badgers’ opportunity to run one more play and kick the potential game-winning field goal. Borland is hopeful BCS pollsters will notice the way Wisconsin lost.
“I don’t know how computers take into account the Arizona State loss,” Borland said. “Hopefully voters could override them or there could be a unique scenario for that. I think every game is winnable. You can’t try to say let’s go undefeated now. You’ve got to win each one. But every game is winnable, so wherever that takes us.”
While players are focused on the present, the rest of us can examine bowl possibilities. And despite two difficult losses, the possibilities for Wisconsin remain plentiful.