It's been a long, hard road to Indianapolis for the Wisconsin Badgers. Even with Ohio State and Penn State ineligible for the postseason, their return trip to the Big Ten Championship Game wasn't always secure. In fact, there were times when Wisconsin's dreams of a third-straight Big Ten title seemed to be on life support.
They fired new offensive line coach Mike Markuson two weeks into the season after a loss to Oregon State. They benched quarterback Danny O'Brien for Joel Stave three games into the season. And just when Stave seemed to growing into the starting job, he broke his collarbone against Michigan State.
Combine that with three overtime losses to the Spartans, Ohio State and Penn State, and it wouldn't be surprising if Bret Bielema's team had run out of gas by now.
But even though the season hasn't gone as Bielema or the Badgers (7-5, 4-4 Big Ten) wanted or expected, the seventh-year head coach said he hasn't seen his team stop fighting.
"I know this, it's the best 7-5 team I've ever been a part of." Bielema said. "These guys don't have a loser mentality or anything that's negative. They're just a very, very resilient, positive group of young men that have bonded together in a way that's gotten them to this point."
Now the Badgers have to play Nebraska for the second time this season, nine weeks after the Cornhuskers (10-2, 7-1 Big Ten) came from behind and dealt them a 30-27 loss in Lincoln. Led by head coach Bo Pelini and quarterback Taylor Martinez, the Cornhuskers are seeking their first Big Ten title since they joined the conference last season.
They're favored to get it too, at least according to odds makers. Nebraska enters Saturday's game favored by about three points, but Bielema said he told his team they'd have to do the same thing on Saturday, no matter if they were 7-5 or 10-2; they'd still have to beat the Cornhuskers to go back to the Rose Bowl.
"How we got here doesn't matter," Bielema said. "We don't care how we got here, we just want to play the person we're playing, Nebraska, and we'll be ready to roll."
"Not a lot of people write about runner-ups. It's a one game playoff, however you want to phrase it. Our guys know what's on the agenda. We didn't come back here to play in it; we came back here to win it."
The 2012 season has been anything but easy for the Badgers. But winning cures almost all ills, and a win on Saturday night would still hang another sign in Camp Randall Stadium- no matter their record.
-- Wide receiver Jared Abbrederis and linebacker Chris Borland are good to go, and both are "full-go," according to Bielema. Abbrederis previously left the Penn State game with concussion-like symptoms, and Borland missed the last two games with a hamstring injury.
-- Bielema did not give an update on right guard Kyle Costigan, who left the Penn State game with a concussion. Bielema said earlier in the week that Costigan had been cleared to practice, but it's unclear if Costigan will play Saturday.
News and notes:
-- Bielema said they put Curt Phillips in Peyton Manning's old locker in Lucas Oil Stadium, since Phillips grew up a fan of his in Tennessee.
-- Bielema said that the media doesn't write much about the championship game's runner up, but win or lose it's clear he's still excited about his team's prospects in 2013. The Badgers are losing just nine seniors this season, and even then Phillips and Brendan Kelly are expected to rejoin the team on sixth-year waivers. The Badgers also return a large junior class that Bielema thinks very highly of.
"I have 27 juniors. I believe 12 of them are probably going to be draft worthy," Bielema said. "I'm very excited about the chemistry of the group that's going to be coming back next year."
-- Bielema also said that the Big Ten Championship Game has given his program a boost in recruiting that they didn't even get from back-to-back Rose Bowl appearances. That might be surprising at first, but Bielema seems to think the novelty of the game as paid dividends already.