Wisconsin has not had a great year of football. We can agree to that. Bret Bielema fired his offensive line coach after a 1-1 start to the season in which Wisconsin was near the bottom of the Big Ten in offensive production. Then, after rallying midseason to clinch the Big Ten Championship berth, the Badgers lost two close games to finish off the regular season at 7-5.
As mentioned before, that's still enough to get Wisconsin into the conference title game, which means Wisconsin is just one win away from representing the Big Ten in the Rose Bowl. Yep, a five-loss team in Pasadena.
Of course, Nebraska is favored in this game and would be a fine representative for the conference come January. A win pushes Nebraska to 11-2 on the season, and if it doesn't get Nebraska to the Top 10 in the BCS standings, it'll be close—Nebraska is No. 12 right now with only three of the 11 teams ahead of it also competing in a conference championship.
Wisconsin, on the other hand, looks like a historical anomaly for the ages.
Granted, this is a very unique situation. For one, this is only the second year the Big Ten has had a divisional setup. It's much more difficult to have a lousy record when you're the best team out of 10 (or 11 or 12) than when you're the best of six. It's even easier to have a lousy record when the best two teams in your division are postseason-ineligible. So all Wisconsin had to be was the third-best team in its division of six teams—and that's all Wisconsin ended up being.
What that leaves us with is a 7-5 (4-4) team being granted a spot in the conference championship, despite having the sixth-best conference record. That's never going to happen again, barring another bout of serious transgressions against the NCAA, and that's usually not the Big Ten's thing.
Oddly enough, Wisconsin is sort of used to being the symbol of unusual Big Ten futility in the Rose Bowl. The Big Ten began its annual tradition of playing in the Rose Bowl on January 1, 1947. From there, the Big Ten (then called the Big Nine) started out 12-2 against what was then called the Pacific Coast Conference (now the Pac-12). The only team to lose to the PCC in those first 14 games? Yep, Wisconsin.
Indeed, Wisconsin remained winless in the Rose Bowl until the 1993 season, the longest such drought for any of the Big Ten's charter members except Indiana—the Hoosiers are 0-1 in the Rose Bowl, having lost once in 1968 to USC and never returned. The Darkest Timeline remains unfollowed. Thankfully.
Anyway, this isn't about Wisconsin's history. This is about Wisconsin right now. And right now, that Wisconsin team looks like the worst the Big Ten has ever offered in the postwar era of college football.
Commonly, when someone thinks of the worst Big Ten teams in Rose Bowl history, the immediate thoughts go to Illinois sneaking in as a replacement for championship-bound Ohio State in 2007. But that Illini team was still 9-3 against a very difficult schedule and ranked No. 13 before going to the bowl. Yes, USC beat the living daylights out of the Illini, but USC whipped a lot of teams that year.
Also, Iowa sent a couple 8-3 teams to the Rose Bowl in the Hayden Fry era, but even after (predictable) losses in their Rose Bowls, those two teams still ended their seasons ranked No. 18 in the nation. Wisconsin's not even getting votes in the polls right now.
In fact, to find a corollary to Wisconsin's mediocre season, you'd have to go back all the way to 1950, when unranked Michigan found its way to Pasadena despite a 5-3-1 season record. That's a .611 winning percentage, which is only scarcely worse than the .615 Wisconsin would put up with a win on Saturday.
And you know what? That Michigan team still won its Rose Bowl, dispatching a previously unbeaten No. 4 California squad 14-6. Suffice it to say, we do not have a similar measure of confidence in Wisconsin beating a highly ranked Pac-12 opponent this year.
So let's just hope Nebraska puts away the Badgers and sends a decent team to Pasadena. We're getting a little tired of figuring out just how historically bad this conference is this season.