It's fair to not be overly enthused about the Big Ten's bowl prospects this year, what with no teams favored and two wins feeling like the plausible maximum for the conference.
Don't let that pessimism distract you from paying attention to what should be the most interesting bowl of the Big Ten's slate: Wisconsin facing Stanford in the Rose Bowl Tuesday evening on New Year's Day.
The fact that Wisconsin's even in Pasadena is, by itself, a really big deal.
Wisconsin is the first Big Ten team to make three consecutive Rose Bowls since Michigan did so over 30 years ago. Wisconsin's also the first team ever to make three consecutive Rose Bowls with three different starting quarterbacks: Scott Tolzien, Russell Wilson and Joel Stave. Sure, the circumstances that led to Wisconsin having a shot at the Rose Bowl were more than a little unusual, but still: Wisconsin's making history here.
Stanford, meanwhile, has its own history with the Rose Bowl—and it's pretty bleak.
The Cardinal have been to the Grandaddy 12 times, but only four of those appearances were in the post-WW2 "modern" era of college football. Stanford won a pair of Rose Bowls in consecutive years, defeating Ohio State after the 1970 season (ruining the Buckeyes' national title hopes) and then upsetting Michigan 13-12 to ruin an undefeated season for Bo Schembechler.
And then...that's it.
Stanford would only be back to the Rose Bowl once after that, in 2000. There, the Cardinal lost to—what do you know—Wisconsin.
Wisconsin punched its ticket to Pasadena in emphatic fashion, laying waste to Nebraska in the Big Ten title game 70-31 in a game that wasn't even as close as the score would indicate. It was the biggest scoring performance in a conference title game since Texas annihilated Colorado 70-3 back in 2005; that was the same Texas team that beat USC in what's generally regarded as the greatest BCS National Championship Game of all time.
In that victory, Wisconsin racked up an astonishing 539 yards rushing—and the Badgers were on pace for more before clearing out the bench, as "only" 100 of those yards came in the fourth quarter. So yes, it could have been worse. 539 yards wasn't even the biggest rushing total of Wisconsin's season; the Badgers set a school record with a 564-yard outburst against Indiana three weeks prior.
So while Wisconsin doesn't have the most prolific rushing attack in the Big Ten—that's Nebraska, in terms of yards per game—it certainly does have one of the most fearsome in the nation, if only because the Badgers are capable of ripping off big numbers against anybody.
The unstoppable force that is Wisconsin's ground game is about to meet its immovable object, however. Stanford's rush defense is third-best in the nation, allowing just under 88 yards per game—and that's with a game at Oregon on its docket. Sure, Stanford gave up 198 yards rushing in that game, but the Cardinal also only allowed 14 points.
And most importantly, Stanford won.
Hand-in-hand with Stanford's dominance in rushing defense is its work behind the line, and nobody in the nation is better than the Cardinal. Stanford leads the entire nation in sacks per game (4.31) and tackles-for-loss per game (an otherworldly 9.23), and the Cardinal have five players with at least 10 tackles-for-loss on the season; Wisconsin, meanwhile, has two.
So we've got arguably the hottest rushing game in college football going up against arguably the most dominant front seven in college football in the most storied bowl in college football. It's a team making its third straight trip to the Rose Bowl against a team that hasn't won there in over 40 years. Hard not to enjoy a matchup like that.
And then there's the Bret Bielema factor.
Bielema, as most know by now, celebrated his team's Big Ten Championship victory by high-tailing it to 4-8 Arkansas in the SEC just days later, leaving the team without a head coach as it prepares for its Rose Bowl matchup. Bielema cited low assistant pay at Wisconsin as the impetus for his departure, and the subsequent flood of assistants away from Madison (all official after the bowl game) proves Bielema's point nicely.
Wisconsin did tab Gary Anderson of Utah State to be the next coach, but he's not going to be serving in that capacity until after the Rose Bowl. The interim coach is one Barry Alvarez, who just so happens to be Wisconsin's athletic director...and the winningest coach in Badger football history. Moreover, Alvarez was 3-0 in his trips to Pasadena, while Bielema was 0-2 in his attempts to enter Rose Bowl lore.
Thus, the case could easily be made that Wisconsin didn't even downgrade in its leadership and game planning, though the sample sizes are small enough that we don't recommend reading too much into them. There's no question that Alvarez knows what he's doing as a football coach, though, and the fact that Wisconsin's team captains asked him to coach the Rose Bowl speaks to that.
So, it's not only a matter of Wisconsin's brand of power football against Stanford's outstanding defensive front. It's not only about two programs' divergent histories in Pasadena clashing once again. It's not only about a rematch and a chance for revenge for the only time Stanford's been to the Rose Bowl in the last 40 years.
It's about Barry Alvarez proving that despite what his former protégé Bielema may claim, Wisconsin can prove it still belongs among the elite programs of college football over the last 15-to-20 years. And it's also about Stanford and its 40,000 travelling fans proving that history be damned, they belong in Pasadena just like anyone else in the Pac-12.
How can you not love that? How can you not look forward to that?
That's why we're more amped up for the Rose Bowl than any other Big Ten bowl this season.
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