Program returning to Rose Bowl for first time since 2000
The Wisconsin Badgers will take the field at the Rose Bowl this Saturday to play the undefeated TCU Horned Frogs, a future member of the Big East Conference currently in the Mountain West Conference. It has been 11 long years since the Badgers last played in the Rose Bowl. On a day where everyone was relieved that Y2K turned out to not be much of an actual problem, Wisconsin defeated Stanford 17-9 behind a 200 yard and 1 touchdown day from Heisman Trophy winning running back Ron Dayne. That victory was Wisconsin's third straight victory in three trips to the Rose Bowl, and even more impressive was that those three victories came in a six year span. The decade of the 1990s was certainly one to remember for Wisconsin Badger fans.
The 2000s were not nearly as successful as the 1990s for the Badgers. But just how successful it was depends on how you measure success in college football. Currently, Wisconsin has appeared in nine straight bowl games, a streak topped by only ten other universities. The Badgers only had one losing season with a 5-7 record in 2001. Wisconsin went 5-4 in their bowl games and 86-43 overall. Barry Alvarez successfully handed the reins of head coach to a young Bret Bielema. However, the Badgers didn't appear in any BCS bowls in the 2000s. The best way to characterize the decade would be maintaining the success of the 90s, but not really building a whole lot on it. So, what will the 2010s hold for the Badgers? What happens on Saturday will help us start answering that question.
As a program, Wisconsin has always emphasized the importance of the Rose Bowl. The most illustrative example of this is the sign in the Badgers' practice facility which reads, "The road to the Rose Bowl begins here." The Badgers have never won a national championship, and it's fair to believe that Wisconsin would have gotten snubbed out of a title shot this season had the Badgers finished 12-0. This is where a win on Saturday would help Wisconsin in the future. Victories in BCS games are important when it comes to opening up access to the national championship game in future seasons. Just appearing in BCS games helps, but the pollsters who decide who plays in the national championship game are strongly (and incorrectly) influenced by the recent success of teams. Take TCU for example. If the Horned Frogs had defeated Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl last season, they would have had more of a shot at earning a berth to the national championship this season.
Saturday's game is important for head coach Bret Bielema, but he has done enough this season to secure his job for years to come. Unless he makes a few completely boneheaded coaching decisions in Pasadena (which would be very unexpected considering the job he's done this season), there will be little opposition from Wisconsin fans over Bielema remaining at the helm even with a loss. This game is more important to Bielema in terms of the game itself. This season has already been one of many firsts for Bret- first win over Ohio State, first Big Ten championship, and first time taking a team to the Rose Bowl, and you can bet he'd love to get his first BCS bowl win as a head coach under his belt.
But really, this game means the most to the Wisconsin players. There's a lot of pride in being a player of a team that was able to bring the Rose Bowl trophy back to Madison. They receive the sense of accomplishment you get from setting a goal and then going out and getting it done. All the hard work they've put in pays off in the following forms: Huge wins at home over top ranked teams. Big Ten championships. Rose Bowl berths. Being in the conversation of who is the best team in the country. Like or not, the result of that one game on Saturday partially determines how history views them individually and especially the team as a whole. A loss would leave everyone with a feeling that the Badgers didn't quite finish the job. But don't let Saturday's result define this team, for better or worse. This season has been one of the most successful seasons in Wisconsin Football history, no matter what happens in Pasadena on January 1st. But Wisconsin fans sure would love to see another Rose Bowl trophy in the trophy case, and it certainly appears that this Badger team has what it takes to get it done.