It's been a wild ride for the Wisconsin Badgers football team in 2012. They started out the New Year by playing in Pasadena for the second straight year at the Rose Bowl. Unfortunately for the Badgers, they lost another close ball game (45-38) to Oregon, in a game that came down to the final possession.
The same thing happened the year before versus TCU, when the Badgers lost 21-19. In both games, the Badgers had foolishly used timeouts early in the second half, and when they needed them most at the end of the game, they weren't there.
The Badgers also lost some key players to the NFL because of graduation. Namely, quarterback Russell Wilson. Wilson had the best season a quarterback at Wisconsin ever had in 2011, when he threw 33 TD passes vs. just four picks for 3,175 yards.
Wilson also ran for 464 yards and six touchdowns for the Badgers. Heisman-type numbers overall.
The Badgers also lost two key cogs on their offensive line when center/guard Peter Konz and guard Kevin Zeitler left. Plus, the Badgers also lost their leading wide receiver, Nick Toon. In addition to that, safety Aaron Henry also graduated.
Big, big losses, indeed.
Add to all that, the Badgers lost six coaches, the biggest one being Paul Chryst, the well-respected offensive coordinator, who left to become the head coach at the University of Pittsburgh.
Another big loss was losing offensive line coach Bob Bostad, who first went with Chryst to Pittsburgh, and then later became the offensive line coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The Badgers did add a piece, however, as quarterback Danny O'Brien transferred from the University of Maryland, similar to what Wilson had done a year earlier from North Carolina State. In both circumstances, the players were allowed to play immediately because they had graduated.
The Badgers would soon find out that O'Brien was no Wilson. It was actually unfair for people to think that he might be. More on this later.
Even with all of those changes, most experts thought the Badgers would have an excellent opportunity to be in the second Big Ten Championship Game. The Badgers won the first one in a heart-stopping fashion, when they came back to beat Michigan State 42-39 in a classic game.
The main reason people thought the Badgers could be back for the second straight year was because both Ohio State and Penn State would be on probation and would not be allowed to play in the postseason.
The thought was that the Badgers would be better than the rest of the other teams in the Leaders Division in the Big Ten, which is exactly what happened.
But it was a very rocky road for the Badgers to get to the Big Ten Championship Game in 2012. Losing six coaches and several key players will do that.
The Badgers started the season very slowly, as they struggled to put away Northern Iowa in their opening game at Camp Randall, before winning 26-21. Then, the Badgers lost to then-unranked Oregon State on the road, 10-7.
Head coach Bret Bielema had seen enough, as the running game had looked nothing like the vaunted rushing attack the Badgers have had for almost two decades. Bielema fired Mike Markuson, who was hired to replace Bostad.
But after gaining just 35 yards in 23 carries against the Beavers, Bielema pulled the plug. Bielema replaced Markuson with Bart Miller, who has spent the past two seasons with the Badgers, mostly assisting the offensive line under Bostad.
In fact, Miller was an offensive lineman at New Mexico, where he played under Bostad.
Slowly, but surely, the running game started resembling the Badgers of the recent past.
But the Badgers kept struggling overall. They barely beat Utah State and UTEP at home, and then lost a big lead to Nebraska on the road in their Big Ten opener, when Wisconsin lost 30-27.
Then, Wisconsin started to look like the old Badgers. They won three straight Big Ten games in a convincing fashion, when they beat Illinois, Purdue and Minnesota. The rushing attack really started to come on in those games, as the Badgers ran for 173, 467 and 337 yards, respectively.
Besides trying to figure out what was wrong with the running game, Bielema and new offensive coordinator Matt Canada were also trying find the right fit at quarterback for the Badgers.
At first, O'Brien ended up winning the job, although he had to fight off some stiff competition by Joel Stave.
But in the UTEP game, the Badgers decided to give the quarterback reins to Stave after a slow start by O'Brien, and he remained the starter until he broke his collarbone in the Michigan State game.
Overall, Stave threw for 1,104 yards, with six touchdowns, compared to three interceptions.
After Stave was injured, the Badgers decided to go with Curt Phillips over O'Brien again as quarterback, even though Phillips has had three ACL tears on his right knee during his time in Madison.
The Badgers have performed pretty well with Phillips as quarterback, and he has had four touchdown passes versus just one pick in three starts since the injury to Stave.
But the running game is still the straw that stirs the drink in the Badger offense.
The Michigan State game started a painful trend for the Badgers, after winning three straight Big Ten games. The Badgers lost 16-13 in overtime to the Spartans, and that loss became something of an trendsetter, as the Badgers also lost to Ohio State and Penn State in overtime to close out their Big Ten season.
Before the matchups with Ohio State and Penn State, the Badgers destroyed Indiana 62-14, behind a whopping 564 rushing yards.
Going into the Big Ten Championship game, the Badgers are only ranked 83rd nationally in total offense, but 22nd in rushing offense, as Wisconsin is averaging over 212 yards a game running the rock.
The Badgers, offensively, are once again led by running back Montee Ball, who was a Heisman finalist in 2011, with 1,923 rushing yards and 39 overall touchdowns. Ball has rushed for 1,528 yards and 18 touchdowns this season, and was named the Ameche-Dayne Running Back of the Year for the second consecutive season in the Big Ten.
Ball is helped out in the running game by James White, who has rushed for 693 yards and eight touchdowns.
Tight end Jacob Pedersen won the Kwalick-Clark Tight End of the Year honor in the Big Ten. Pedersen caught 25 passes and had four touchdowns.
The biggest threat in the Badgers passing game is wide receiver Jared Abbrederis (first-team All-Big Ten), who had 44 receptions for 764 yards and five touchdowns.
Defensively, the Badgers are doing much better statistically, as the Badgers are ranked 11th nationally. The Badgers are led by linebacker Mike Taylor (Big Ten media's first team) and Chris Borland (Big Ten coaches' first team).
So what we have here is a 7-5 team, who has lost two games by three points to top 25 teams, plus has lost three overtime games, including one to 4th ranked (AP) Ohio State.
The Badgers are a very dangerous 7-5 squad, however. They have had to fight through a lot of adversity this season, and even with all the personnel losses (players and coaches), and the painful close game losses this season, the Badgers are still in the Big Ten Championship Game, where they will play 14th ranked Nebraska (10-2).
The Badgers have already played Nebraska earlier this season in Lincoln. They blew a 17-point lead in that game...twice.
Bottom line, the Badgers are better now than they were in late September. The Huskers can be run on, as they are only ranked 72nd nationally in run defense and as they give up on average over 166 yards a game.
The first time these two teams met, the Badgers only had 56 rushing yards. But that was when the offensive line was still struggling.
I see the Badgers doing much better running the ball against the Huskers this time, and in fact, I think they will win the game.
All three phases of the football team have to play well, plus the Badgers don't need any boneheaded coaching mistakes either.
It will take a big effort, by both the players and coaches to get it done, but I believe the Badgers will be smelling the roses for the third straight year.