With their 20-14 win over Miami in the Champs Sports Bowl Tuesday night, the Wisconsin Badgers proved just what they're capable of.
Although the score doesn't indicate it, Wisconsin absolutely dominated a heavily-favored team that was supposed to be one of the best young teams in the land.
While the score shows that the Badgers won by only six points, it easily could have been by about four times that much.
As I posited in a previous article, I believed that a Champs Sports Bowl win could propel Wisconsin to success in 2010. After watching last night's game, that assertion was only strengthened.
Although at times last night Wisconsin's offense failed to capitalize fully on some of their opportunities, they played as well as they have all season.
John Clay proved why he is one of the top backs not only in the Big Ten, but in the nation as well, bumping and bruising his way to over 100 yards against a Miami defense that was trying with all its might to stop the run. I believe that with this performance, along with the fact that his entire offensive line is returning, Clay should be right in the thick of Heisman talk next year.
Scott Tolzien also played extremely well in a crucial moment, proving there should be no question about who plays quarterback for Wisconsin next year. He managed the game exactly like a Wisconsin quarterback should—not trying to win the game, but simply making plays when he needed to.
This Wisconsin offense loses only tight end Garrett Graham next year and their performance last night proves that they will once again be one of the top offenses in the nation.
But the most inspiring aspect of last night's game for Badger fans was the play of Wisconsin's defense.
Other than Miami's late scoring drive, Wisconsin's defense absolutely shut down a highly-touted Hurricane offense.
The Wisconsin defensive line made Jacory Harris' night a nightmare. Five sacks and constant pressure rattled the sophomore quarterback to the point where he actually started yelling at members of his offensive line.
This helped the Badger defensive backs tremendously. Undoubtedly, the weakest aspect of Wisconsin's team, the Badger passing defense played one of their best games of the year against arguably the best passing offense they've faced.
Other than Niles Brinkley, who struggled to keep up with Miami's speed, the pass 'D' was exceptional. Even Devin Smith, who I've harped on all year long, played a decent game.
Unfortunately, the defense loses a few key contributors next year. O'Brien Schofield, who made quarterbacks' lives a hellish experience all year long, graduates this year as does linebacker Jaevery McFadden and defensive captain Chris Maragos.
But they do have some returners that will surely play huge roles in next year's defensive effort. Defensive end J.J. Watt made a name for himself against Miami and should help to replace Schofield.
Jay Valai should take over for Maragos in the defensive backfield as the leader of that squad and hopefully the rest of defensive backs should be improved after a year of experience.
But the two biggest returners to the defense are two young freshman linebackers: Mike Taylor and Chris Borland.
Taylor, who missed five games due to a knee injury, had 46 tackles and a sack this year and should help replace McFadden.
The all-purpose Borland, who plays linebacker, defensive end, and even kicker, played maybe his best game of the year against Miami, wreaking havoc amongst the Miami offensive line.
Borland, who will probably switch between linebacker and defensive end depending on the defensive call, could play the same role as Schofield did this year, rushing the passer on most plays, but dropping back in pass coverage in certain situations.
Certainly the defense won't be anywhere near the nation's best next year, but if they can play the way they did against Miami, especially in pressuring the quarterback, it will be a definite improvement over this year's version.
This win over Miami could be the catalyst to a big year next year. Not only does it give the Badgers their first 10-win year since 2006-07, but it should also put them in the top 20 (maybe even the top 15) in the preseason national polls.
The win is especially good for recruiting as well. Wisconsin recruits heavily in Florida and a victory over one of the in-state schools competing with the Badgers for talent could help sway some top recruits.
With this win, there's no doubt in my mind about what Wisconsin can accomplish next year. With their returning offensive and defensive players and the serious swagger they have going into 2010, Wisconsin should easily compete for a Big Ten title. Expectations will be high and anything less than a BCS bowl will be a disappointment. A Champs Sports Bowl victory only solidifies that notion.