Wisconsin has only lost to Arizona State and Ohio State this season. (Morry Gash / Associated Press)
While the race in the Big Ten’s Legends Division looks like it will go down to the final week — as many expected — the Leaders battle has seemed like a forgone conclusion for quite awhile now.
Some might argue it was before the season even began, believing it was Ohio State’s to win from the get-go.
But that would be short-sighted, especially considering Wisconsin has been the only team from that division to play in a Big Ten championship game. Yes, the Badgers got there last season because the Buckeyes were not eligible.
Still, Wisconsin is no slouch.
It proved that in the second Big Ten game of the season, nearly overcoming a slow start before losing to Ohio State, 31-24.
And if not for one of the more bizarre officiating blunders this season in the loss to Arizona State, where would the Badgers stand today? As it is, they rank 17th in the Associated Press poll and 20th in the coaches.
But there might not be a better two-loss team out there — a two-loss team that if not for a play here and there could be an undefeated team.
Wisconsin proved again Saturday how good it is, controlling BYU in a 27-17 victory, a late score by the Cougars making the game look closer than it really was.
With the Big Ten title game out of the question, save for a colossal collapse from Ohio State, Wisconsin is playing for bowl placement — more specifically, a spot in a BCS game. The win over a BYU team that had won five straight should help.
“Hopefully it is,” linebacker Chris Borland said. “I think BYU is a tremendous team. They had been gaining steam and played well today. I think it should help us out.”
The question at this point is whether there is enough help to get Wisconsin in the top 14 in the BCS standings, the ranking necessary to be considered for an at-large bid. The Badgers close with games against Indiana, Minnesota and Penn State. While the Minnesota game looks much more appealing now, there might not be a signature win left.
Whether it’s enough for Wisconsin to improve on its BCS ranking remains to be seen. But coach Gary Andersen believes his team will remain focused.
“I don’t think they’re worried about that one bit,” he said. “All that stuff, it’s not in your control. Why worry about things that you can’t control? Just get ready, prepare, and all we can control is the next opponent, and do a good job on Saturdays, and take care of ourselves as a football team.
“They’ve got enough to worry about if they worry about themselves socially, academically, and then athletically. Those kids have plenty to worry about. They don’t need to worry about some poll.”
The Badgers could catch a break by not reaching the conference title game, one Michigan got two years ago when it failed to get to Indy but got a bid to the Sugar Bowl when Michigan State lost to Wisconsin in the championship game. Wisconsin could see the same benefit this year if it finishes the regular season with 10 victories.
Andersen, however, isn’t focusing on what might happen four weeks from now.
“Just business as usual,” he said. “The biggest message I keep sharing with them is now everything we do is three guarantees left, and we’ll get to that bowl game and have fun when we get to the opportunity.
“But in a regular season right now, we’re sitting in the Big Ten, we’re 4-1, and we have some — we have the ability to do some special things and have a special record in the Big Ten, but that’s all out there. Three games left. We’ll see what happens.”
Iowa back on the map
Before the season started, some wondered whether Iowa would win more than a game or two in Big Ten play. The Hawkeyes were coming off a 4-8 season and sat home for the holidays for the first time in four years.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever had a longer holiday break,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said about last year’s failure to reach a bowl game. “You can only sit in front of the fireplace so long.”
Ferentz and the Hawkeyes won’t be sitting home this season after Saturday’s 38-14 victory over Purdue gave them six wins. Where they will play is still up in the air as they could improve on that mark with games against Michigan and Nebraska left, but just continuing to play is big for this young team.
“The best part about it is you get to keep your team together for another month,” Ferentz said, “and you always have a chance to compete against a good opponent.”
But just getting to a bowl game isn’t exactly what they play for at Iowa. Entering last season, the Hawkeyes had missed a bowl game only once since 2001 and had played in two BCS games.
“Obviously, it’s not our endgame, but that’s one nice by-product of winning,” Ferentz said. “It’s something we don’t take for granted. All you have to do is look back to last year. So it’s great to get that accomplished.”
That's more like it
Though it’s starting to look like any defense will dominate against Michigan, the play of Nebraska on Saturday finally started to look like a typical “Blackshirt” attack. The Huskers had seven sacks and held the Wolverines to minus-21 yards rushing.
“I don’t want to make a declaration of what the next three games are going to be like, but maybe we’re growing up and starting to become the defense we thought we could be,” Nebraska defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. “Certainly, this is the defense I foresaw down the road with as many young guys as we’re playing on the front seven.”
The Huskers are still far from perfect — they gave up 430 yards in a loss to Minnesota — but there’s little doubt the defense is making progress. If they can manage to pull out the Legends Division title, the defense will play a huge role.
“That’s the best we’ve played together as a defense,” defensive end Jason Ankrah said. “We were just having fun.”