Wisconsin is in some unfamiliar territory.
No, not the Big Ten title game. The Badgers count as grizzled veterans after playing in last year's inaugural conference championship, well acquainted with all the hype and hoopla that comes with it. A trip to the Rose Bowl isn't so daunting, either. The Badgers, after all, rang in the last two New Years in Pasadena.
It's being so, well, mediocre, that's new for Wisconsin. Winners of the Big Ten title the last two years, the Badgers are getting a chance at the first three-peat in school history Saturday -- by default. With Ohio State and Penn State ineligible for the postseason, it's Wisconsin playing No. 14 Nebraska on Saturday for the title and a trip to the Rose Bowl.
"Obviously it is different and strange this year because of our record going into this game," said Montee Ball, who last week became major college football's all-time touchdown leader. "But it's not our fault what happened to the teams that can't play in this game. We're most definitely going to take the opportunity and we're going to run with it. We're going to go to Indianapolis and play hard."
Wisconsin (7-5, 4-4 Big Ten) stumbled to the finish of the regular season with three losses in its last four games, all in overtime. It tied for fifth in the Big Ten, and lost more than three conference games for only the second time in coach Bret Bielema's seven seasons.
Most years, that would have relegated the Badgers to a bowl named for an automotive company or bar food, played so early they'd be home in plenty of time to watch the BCS bowls from the comfort of their couches. But somebody had to represent the Leaders Division in the Big Ten title game, and without the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions, the Badgers were the best of the rest.
"I didn't set the rules with how everything has worked out. I didn't pick the teams that were in there," center and team captain Travis Frederick said. "This is how it's worked out, and it's going to come down to us and Nebraska."
To be fair, the Badgers weren't all that far from being a good team. Possibly even a really good one. Only one of their losses was by more than three points, and that was the 21-14 OT loss to Ohio State. Wisconsin led or was tied going into the fourth quarter in three of the losses. It also played its last three games with a quarterback who had played all of three snaps -- that's snaps, not starts -- since the 2009 regular-season finale.
A play here, a play there, and the Badgers could be headed to Indianapolis with a far more impressive record.
The end result, however, would have been exactly the same.
"Obviously we didn't want to lose those games. But one thing coach B told us is that 7-5, 12-0, we'd still be in the same position right now, playing the same team," Ball said.
While the Badgers won't apologize for their record, they're not thrilled with it, either. Wisconsin has come a long way from its bad ol' days when it seemed to have permanent residence in the Big Ten basement, and the Badgers much prefer the spot they've been in the last few years as one of the conference powerhouses.
The five losses are as many as the last two Wisconsin teams had combined, and are the most since the Badgers finished 7-6 in 2008.
"Five losses, and one loss being against Nebraska, we definitely feel we have something to prove against them and to the nation," Ball said.
Beating Nebraska (10-2, 7-1) won't necessarily change the less-than-flattering opinions many people have of the Badgers, either. But it would erase some of the sting from the losses. And, despite the rocky road, put Wisconsin exactly where it hoped to be when the season began.
"At the beginning of the season, we set forth our goals of going back to Indianapolis and going to the Rose Bowl," quarterback Curt Phillips said. "Obviously some of these games haven't gone exactly as we wanted. But these goals are still within our reach. We just have to make the most of it."