With all the injuries that have changed the complexion of this team throughout the season, the Wisconsin Badgers' 7-2 record is actually right about what most thought it would be before this season started. Few picked a win over Alabama and calling for a loss or two in conference was very much the norm. Both of the Badgers' losses are disappointing, but they sting mostly because the team had at least one hand tied behind its back when they happened.
Iowa, too, turned out to have been the one conference game Wisconsin couldn't lose if the Badgers wanted their best shot at a second consecutive Big Ten West division title. The division from top to bottom has probably turned out to be an even weaker collection of teams than originally thought, but you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who called for Iowa to be undefeated when the first College Football Playoff rankings were announced this week.
So what are the chances for the Badgers to get back to Indianapolis? This week's game at Maryland should be a win, especially with junior running back Corey Clement back in action, and then the team gets its long-awaited break. On the injury front, Clement will get more time to get back to normal, but other than true freshman inside linebacker Chris Orr, whose absence has been almost fully mitigated by former walk-on Jack Cichy, the team is unlikely to get anyone back in its lineup. Austin Traylor and Taiwan Deal are possibilities, with the latter expected to play this week, but that's about it.
The wide receiver group, which should be more effective with Clement back, will get a chance to better gel or possibly improve during the bye week. Alex Erickson and Jazz Peavy are known quantities at this point, but Tanner McEvoy and even D.J. Gillins, who got several snaps against Rutgers, could get into the playbook a little more deeply.
Northwestern has games against Penn State and at Purdue before coming to Madison in two weeks. Both could be losses if Penn State plays as well as it can and Purdue is still riding a wave following its win last week against Nebraska and the knowledge that head coach Darrell Hazell will be back in 2016. Although not quite like it's been the last two years, the Wildcats' trajectory this season makes them hard to pin down analytically, but the Badgers, playing in their home finale on Senior Day, will certainly be looking to avenge last year's frustrating loss in Evanston.
By the time the regular season wraps up in Minneapolis, the Gophers may have had their postseason foreclosed, leaving them with the singular goal of wrapping up the Jerry Kill era in style by spoiling whatever chances UW may have for the West or just getting the dang Axe back for once. This year was once upon a time thought to be maybe the best chance yet for Minnesota to finally break the Badgers' 11-game stranglehold on this series, but the way the season's played out for both teams, there's ample reason to doubt that.
On the other side of the ledger, Iowa needs to lose two games. Remaining on its schedule are this weekend at Indiana, two games with the aforementioned hard-luck Minnesota and with Purdue and the oddly-named Heroes Game against Nebraska, this year in Lincoln. All of them look eminently winnable -- in other words, it looks like Iowa would have to punch way, way down in order to lose these games. Quarterback C.J. Beathard won't be 100 percent the rest of the way; if he's ineffective or out altogether, that's probably Badger fans' best hope for the division title, provided of course UW also wins out.
If both Wisconsin and Iowa don't lose again, and Iowa gets a shot at a conference championship as well as a real shot at making the playoff (undefeated Iowa, with a win over the East champion, wouldn't be left out barring a miraculous confluence of circumstances across the land), that would leave the Badgers with a 7-1 conference record and a 10-2 overall record. Even if Iowa loses in Indy, Wisconsin's two losses (just two!) will have been against (freakin') Alabama and an Iowa team that went undefeated in its regular season -- and who needed a goal-line fumble and the absence of Wisconsin's best player to win that game.
Is there any reasonable way that such an outcome could not be considered a success? Would that still be true with a loss in whatever bowl game UW plays, provided it's not a blowout? A bowl game blowout seems highly unlikely with this defense anyway, but given what this team's had to overcome this season -- and setting aside its inherent limitations even if it had stayed at close to full strength -- finishing with just those two losses would be something to savor and would build substantial momentum for 2016. Add in the fact that the tumult of the past few seasons at the head coach spot has been resolved by Paul Chryst, the only real question at that point will be whether UW can keep defense coordinator Dave Aranda in Madison.
But there's three games left yet in the regular season. Players and coaches don't really have the luxury, but fans can project all they want. If this season plays out as it looks like it should, fans can look back at the losses wistfully, or with retrospective consternation if they insist, but also go into the holiday season with plenty of good memories of 2015. With at least four games left altogether, there's even still a whole bunch of them yet to be made.