Wisconsin football and the rest of the Big Ten conference are down. The Badgers, Spartans, Wolverines and Cornhuskers are all struggling, while Ohio State and Penn State are in the middle of NCAA sanctions.
Typically, the Big Ten conference is one of the top two conferences in the nation, but the Big 12 and Pac-12 have both passed the Big Ten. The Big Ten has ground to make up in order to equal the SEC, and the Wisconsin Badgers are the key program.
All of the top four conferences contain at least two marquee programs that are national powerhouses. The Pac-12 has Oregon and USC, the Big 12 has Oklahoma and Texas, and the SEC has Alabama, LSU, Florida and Georgia, while the Big Ten has Michigan and Ohio State. Any of these programs is capable of winning at least a BCS bowl game in any given year, and routinely are in the running for a national championship.
Additionally, each conference has programs that are just a step below, with Nebraska, Penn State, UCLA, and Texas A&M as examples. Maybe they won't routinely challenge for BCS titles, but they are talented teams that have resources and tradition that carry weight across the nation. It is here that the gap is growing between the Big Ten and the other four major conferences.
The SEC is the gold standard of college football and deservedly so. They have more traditional powers than anyone else, and their mid-tier programs actually win BCS bowl games.
Auburn, a mid-tier SEC school, won the national championship in 2010, while South Carolina and Arkansas were both talked about as potential national champions at some point in the 2012 season. The same holds true across the Pac-12 and Big 12, as they have had teams such as Stanford, Oklahoma State and Kansas State in BCS discussion.
This is where the Big Ten needs Wisconsin to make the proverbial leap in order to close the gap.
Moving forward, Ohio State and Michigan both are on track to challenge for BCS titles, that much is clear. It is the drop-off after the Big Ten's marquee programs that could serve as the league's downfall.
Penn State's troubles are well documented, and while still a national brand, they won't be postseason relevant for some time. Nebraska also has national appeal, but they haven't fully figured out the Big Ten yet, and are still struggling. Michigan State has had success, as has Iowa, but both are struggling this season and have been hit-or-miss in recent history.
The Wisconsin Badgers are the program that must settle in as the third program behind Ohio State and Michigan in the Big Ten hierarchy, and provide depth behind the Big Ten heavyweights.
This season aside, the Badgers are awfully close to cementing this position in the league and solidifying the Big Ten. Wisconsin has won the last two Big Ten titles and appeared in two straight Rose Bowls. Incredibly, even with the team's struggles this year, the Badgers still have the potential to make it three straight.
The Badgers routinely send players to the NFL, and boast star alumni in J.J. Watt and Joe Thomas, as well as Russell Wilson. The Badgers success on the field and in player development has raised Wisconsin's national profile, allowing for improved recruiting and facilities, important ingredients in program building.
As mentioned earlier, it is the other conferences ability to have non-traditional programs enter the discussion for national championships that set them apart from the Big Ten, with Kansas State serving as a prime example for this year. It is this role that Wisconsin must embrace, and produce a top-five team every couple years that enters the national championship discussion.
The Badgers don't necessarily have to win, but they must be there to ensure that the Big Ten always has at least three teams in the top 15.
Thankfully for the Big Ten, the Badgers are primed to do so. The 2012 team has been snakebitten, suffering through injuries, coaching changes and subpar play from usually stalwart units. Still, the team has the potential to finish with 10 wins, as Indiana and Penn State remain on the schedule, as well as Ohio State, the Big Ten championship and their bowl game. The Badgers have the talent to win four of those games.
However, it is the next couple seasons that should have the Big Ten faithful breathing a sigh of relief. The 2012 Badgers are a young team, and are only losing a couple players to graduation. Montee Ball and Mike Taylor have both been incredible players for the Badgers, but the talent to replace them is there. Jared Abbrederis should be back, as should James White. Chris Borland still has eligibility left, as does Jacob Pederson and Travis Frederick. All of those players are All-Big-Ten performers and should be expected to return for the 2013 season.
Joel Stave is only a freshman, and the Badgers have a slew of young depth at running back, offensive line, wide receiver and linebacker, including potential stars in Melvin Gordon, Jake Keefer and Kenzel Doe.
Starting in 2013, the Badgers are poised to return the Big Ten to the upper echelon of power conferences. Ohio State and Michigan will be in the discussion for national championships, but don't be surprised to see the Badgers enter the mix.
The Wisconsin Badgers are a program on the rise.