Its spot in the Big Ten title game already assured, Wisconsin now gets a chance to prove it deserves it.
Knocking off No. 6 Ohio State (10-0, 6-0 Big Ten) would go a long way toward erasing that asterisk hanging over the Badgers these days. Wisconsin, you see, actually trails the Buckeyes by two games in the Leaders Division, but it's the Badgers (7-3, 4-2) who are on their way to Indianapolis for a second straight year because Ohio State is ineligible for the postseason. (So is Penn State, which until last weekend led the Badgers, too.)
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"We don't want to leave any doubt," Wisconsin left tackle Rick Wagner said. "We want to beat them."
Ohio State was banned from the postseason and forced to vacate the 2010 season as part of its punishment for NCAA violations under former coach Jim Tressel. Few would have expected the ban to mean a whole lot after the Buckeyes went 6-7 last year, their first losing record in more than 20 years. Yet here they are, one of the last unbeaten teams in the country.
The Buckeyes have known all along they weren't going anywhere once the season ends. They may not like it, but they made peace with their predicament months ago. That doesn't mean, however, that this has to be another lost season.
Far from it.
A win Saturday would give the Buckeyes the outright title in the Leaders Division -- the Big Ten has said Ohio State is still eligible for that. Just as important, it would give them a share of conference bragging rights, regardless of what happens in next month's conference championship game.
So as badly as the Badgers want to prove they're deserving of a spot in the title game, the Buckeyes want just as much to show they're not.
"It's real big. We, at the end of the season, want everybody to look at us as the best team in the Big Ten even though we can't go to the Big Ten championship game," Buckeyes receiver Corey Brown said. "As of right now, we are the best team in the Big Ten. There's no doubt about it. Another big road win, it'll be no question who's the best team."
Wisconsin's Montee Ball needs just two more touchdowns to become major college football's all-time leader, and he and the Badgers would like nothing more than for him to get the record at home. But the first priority is winning the game, which is why Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema has said he will play his starters despite already being in the Big Ten title game.
"We don't want people to say we made it there by default," Ball said. "But our main goal is to win out. We fell short three times, and we don't want it to happen again."
Yes, the standings matter. Even when they don't.