The University of Wisconsin Badgers had not been to the Rose Bowl since 1999.
There were rumblings that perhaps Coach Bielema was not the tactician and leader the level of his mentor, the current Athletic Director, Barry Alvarez.
Alvarez had transformed the usually lowly Badgers into a traditional power, winning three Rose Bowls and going 8 -3 in Bowl games during his tenure. Under Alvarez the Badgers developed a tradition of having tough-nosed running teams that bashed and slammed into their opponents until they wore them down.
Alvarez’s chosen successor Bielema had followed the same formula and had taken the Badgers to four straight bowl games. However, his inability to win the “big game” and get to the top level of the conference had started to cause whispers around the UW program.
This was the team he had targeted to be the one that stopped this criticism.
The past three Conference Champion teams had been built around punishing running games.
This team was no exception to that.
John Clay was listed among the Heisman hopefuls at the beginning of the year. The offensive line is huge and filled with NFL level talent led by tackle Gabe Carimi, a certain first round pick and maybe the first lineman taken in the upcoming draft.
The defense was solid and is led by the high-motor rushing end J.J. Watt.
But in addition this team also had something some past Wisconsin teams did not. An accurate quarterback and decent outside receiving talent.
Wisconsin has been the backup quarterback shopping mall of the NFL putting such long time backups as Brooks Bollinger and Jim Sorgi into the league. But they have never been known for fielding top flight quarterbacks.
This year's QB may be better than any of the rest before him and change that image.
Scott Tolzien was the surprise winner of the competition for starting quarterback in 2009 and went on to set the school record for number of completions in a season. He threw for over 2700 yards in leading the team to a 10-3 record in 2009 and a win in the Champs Sports Bowl.
Suddenly the team with a smashing running attack, the huge offensive line, the solid and tough defense now had a quarterback being nominated for the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm award. The sky seemed the limit for the 2010 season and expectations were high.
Even so, the Badgers started out the season slowly.
The wins over UNLV and San Jose State to open the season were merely solid and nothing spectacular.
Then, a major scare was delivered to this team against Arizona State. The Badgers could not get the offense rolling in this one and had to block an extra point to hang on to a 20-19 victory to go 3-0.
The major problem in the early season was injuries. Clay, tight-end Lance Kendricks, and receivers Nick Toon and David Gilreath all missed time giving the offense some problems with rhythm and consistency.
A 70-3 win over Austin Peay to go 4-0 heading into the Big 10 season seemed to right the ship and have the team ready to contend for the Championship.
But the offense continued to have troubles in the Big 10 opener and the defense could not stop Kirk Cousins or a Michigan State running game that racked up 175 yards en route to a 34-24 Spartan win in East Lansing.
Once more it seemed like this may be a Wisconsin team that did well and got to a bowl but could not get over the hump and win the important games.
The early season injuries to Clay showed that this team did have depth in the running game, in particular, the emergence of freshman James White who ran for two TD’s and 98 yards in the loss to Michigan State. The Badgers found they did not have to lean on Clay and pound him the ball 40 times a game in order to have an offense that could move.
And move is what they started to do—the Badger offense never scored under 31 points in a game the rest of the year.
They have averaged 48 points a game since the Michigan State loss including an 83 point outburst against Indiana and a 70 spot put up against Northwestern in the regular season finale.
Injury riddled Clay still ran for over 900 yards and 14 touchdowns despite sitting out several games.
Picking up the slack, White ran for over 1000 yards and 14 touchdowns. Senior Montee Ball came on late in the season when White had his own injury problems and ran for over 850 yards and an astonishing 17 touchdowns of his own.
With running like that, Scott Tolzien has not been counted on to do as much this season as he did last year.
Tolzien averages about only 20 passes a game but he completes over 74 percent of them. His passing efficiency is one of the top in the country and led to his winning of the Unitas Golden Arm Award in 2010.
Tolzien was specially clutch in the win at Iowa where the Hawkeyes shut down the running game and he led a game winning drive with just over a minute to play. For the season Tolzien has thrown for 16 touchdowns and over 2300 yards and appears poised to smash the Big 10 completion percentage record.
With the injuries and low number of passes thrown, no receiver has really stood out statistically. But there is talent and speed on the outside with Toon and Gilreath. Kendricks will follow in the recent tradition of pass catching tight ends that go on to start in the NFL. In addition to his receiving prowess Gilreath is one of the top kick and punt returners in the country.
The defense is solid but not spectacular.
They average giving up 20 points a game—a good statistic given how far ahead of many of their opponents they are and how many passes per game are thrown against them. There are no big interceptors or sack leaders but the unit is good and has risen up when needed in the big games this year.
After the loss to MSU the Badgers went on a roll, highlighted by a 31 - 18 win at Camp Randall over then No.1 Ohio State.
Combined with the clutch comeback over Iowa and an average winning margin of 38 points in their final four conference games, the Badgers rose higher and higher in the polls. They finished the regular season at No. 5 in the BCS standings and were arguably the best one loss team in the country.
They finished the season 11 -1 as co-Champs of the Big 10.
The high ranking was needed as it provided the margin needed to secure the Rose Bowl bid against unbeaten and No. 3 ranked Texas Christian University.
The team has met the expectations it had before the season.
Coach Bielema has shown he can field a squad that can win the Big 10 and get to a Rose Bowl.
This team in fact may be the best Wisconsin team in recent memory. When Coach Alvarez made the Rose Bowl they Badgers were usually seen as an overachieving team that was the underdog in the bowl game. This team is listed among the top in the country and is expected to play well against a tough TCU team in the Rose Bowl.
TCU has averaged the same exact point total per game (43.3) as the Badgers.
They average almost 500 yards per game with a well balanced attack led by Unitas nominee Andy Dalton at quarterback and 1000 yard rusher Ed Wesley.
Their defense has given up only 11.4 points a game in their undefeated season.
It will be a big test to see if the Badgers can score against this top rated defense. A win in this game and UW may well finish in the top three in the end of the year rankings.
This team has been fun to watch and root for.
They can run, throw, return, and play defense.
They go for the throat and pour it on when they have the chance.
This team has the opportunity to show that when Wisconsin has a top flight quarterback to compliment their running game that they can contend for a National Championship.
It has a chance to be one of the best Badger teams ever.
Alvarez always had a good bowl record and showed a great ability to scout and prepare a team for the bowl game after the long layoff. Bielema has shown he can get to the big game, now he has to show he can win it too.