It isn't much of a secret that this is a down year in the Big Ten. Ohio State has no offense, Penn State has no quarterback, Michigan is still finding its way out of no-man's-land, and everybody else is either good but flawed, or just plain bad.
There is one team left. A team that has as been a regular in the top 25 polls on and off during the last decade; a team that went to a BCS bowl last year; a team that has a top 10 offense and a strong defense. That team is Wisconsin: the last BCS championship hope of the Big Ten this season.
You want proof? No other Big Ten team is undefeated after Michigan and Illinois both went down last weekend. The two strongest Big Ten teams behind Wisconsin (Michigan State and Nebraska) both have lopsided losses on their resume. Finally, no other team in the Big Ten is currently ranked in the top 12 of the polls.
One loss teams are out. Even if Nebraska or MSU runs the table, the state of the Big Ten this year --- most likely the third- or fourth-strongest conference in the country --- is such that even undefeated Boise State has an argument over a one-loss Big Ten team, not to mention how fast the rest of the country would choose a one-loss LSU, Alabama or even Oklahoma over a one-loss Big Ten team (hint: before you even had time to ask).
Like it or not, with the continued national irrelevance of Penn State and Michigan, two of the conference's flagship schools, as well as the mess that has engulfed Columbus, there just isn't the same respect for the Big Ten.
And this is where we all hitch our wagons to Wisconsin to save us from a nasty reputation of being too slow, too proud, and too mediocre to compete with the SEC of Big XII for a national title.
Wisconsin is sitting pretty right now. The Badgers are ranked sixth in the initial BCS rankings which means that when all is said and done Wisconsin has a good chance at being at worst third. LSU and Alabama have to play each other as do Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, and all four teams are currently ranked in the BCS ahead of Wisconsin. The other team ahead of the Badgers? Boise State, which is just about to begin its annual slide from the national consciousness and the BCS standings due to not playing anyone with a pulse the rest of the way.
As for challengers, directly behind Wisconsin lies a couple undefeated teams. Stanford is an outside threat to jump the Badgers but with only one game left against a ranked opponent (Oregon) the Cardinal will need a little more luck and a lot more Luck. And Clemson is...well Clemson, and the ACC is weaker than the Big Ten. The odds of either unbeaten jumping Wisconsin if all three win out are low.
Which leads to the next question: can the Badgers win out?
Offensively it would seem that anything is possible. Russell Wilson is having a Heisman type season so far and is surrounded on offense by a cadre of talented playmakers that are capable of carrying the load on any given day, all guarded by one of the largest and most physically dominating offensive lines in the country. Against Nebraska's much ballyhooed defense Wisconsin's line was able to reestablish the line of scrimmage two and three yards down field with regularity.
This group of offensive players has combined to put the Badgers in the top 10 in rushing offense (7th, 257 ypg), and total offense (8th, 523 ypg), but only 31st in pass offense (265 ypg). All of that together has the Badgers No. 1 overall in scoring offense with an average of 50 points per game.
Defensively Wisconsin has raised its game from last year's, and is now top 10 in both total and scoring defense, 7th and 3rd respectively while allowing less than 125 yards per game rushing and 150 yards per game passing.
Looking over the Badger's remaining schedule it breaks down like so:
Cakewalks: Purdue, Minnesota - Neither of these teams hangs within five touchdowns of Wisconsin. Mark it down.
Potentially Dangerous but solid resume teams: Ohio State, Illinois, Penn State - Three teams that are good on one side of the ball but have a fatal flaw somewhere. Without a big boost in special teams or a complete Badger meltdown these are all comfortable wins. Also, all three are or should be fringe top 25 teams when the Badgers play them, helping to solidify Wisconsin's resume.
Proving Ground: Michigan State, Big Ten Champ Game - The Spartans have a physical front seven that is capable of challenging Wisconsin in the run game and making Russell Wilson sweat in the backfield. However, Wisconsin still has the ability to put up 25-30 points and the Spartan offense so far this year has proven woefully inept against good defenses. The Spartans can make this one interesting but Wisconsin is the more complete team. Thankfully this helps the resume, Michigan State is a top 15 team that just dismantled a top 10 team, so a big win in prime time would help Wisconsin's case immensely.
The other big bump in SOS? Wisconsin gets one more game in early December against the team that survives the free-for-all in the Legend's Division. If Wisconsin beats MSU it will open the door for Nebraska, Michigan and possibly Iowa to climb into the spot opposite the Badgers in Indy. Wisconsin fans should root for the highest ranked team for one more boost before the final BCS polls.
How does everything look right now? Wisconsin controls its own destiny to a certain extent. Win out impressively and the Badgers are most likely going to end up third in the BCS at worst*.
From there it is up to God and the rest of the Big XII (or less likely, the SEC*) to open up a trip to the BCS championship game. There is a lot of football left to be played, however, starting with a challenging trip to East Lansing this week. Bret Bielema knows better than to look too far ahead, lest his team trip on what is right in front of it.
Smart money is on this team going 13-0. Where it goes after that is anyone's guess.
*(All of this overlooks the very real possibility that the loser of the LSU/Alabama showdown in November stays in the top three or even the top two (similar to Michigan staying number two after losing to Ohio State in 2006). In this case the argument comes down to the worthiness of a one-loss SEC team over an undefeated Big Ten team. Spoiler alert: it doesn't end well for the Big Ten).