Last Updated - November 27, 2012 11:17 GMT
Prior to the open of this year, Wisconsin was slated as the overwhelming favorite to win the Leaders Division and were touted by many to claim the school’s third straight Big Ten title. The Badgers have indeed clinched a return trip to Indianapolis and the will aim for that third consecutive league crown this week.
Yet, when Wisconsin arrives at Lucas Oil Stadium, Nebraska will be the overwhelming choice to claim the trip to Pasadena.
And such is a microcosm of the 2012 Big Ten season.
The Huskers and Badgers have waded through bad losses and pedestrian performances to set up a date for the Big Ten championship this week.
Nebraska is looking to cap off a storied season that saw them rally from five separate second-half deficits, including a dramatic 30-27 comeback against the Badgers on Sept. 29. The Huskers’ latest come-from-behind win, a 13-7 triumph at Iowa last week, clinched the division crown and sent the Blackshirts to the conference title game for the first time since reaching the Big 12’s back in 2010.
“I believe in this team and I’m proud of those kids in the locker room,” head coach Bo Pelini said. “The team has come together, and put ourselves in this position.”
A big addition the team gained against the Hawkeyes was senior running-back Rex Burkhead’s return from a knee injury. Burkhead missed five consecutive games, but returned to score the division clinching touchdown at Iowa. His presence in Indy is vital for the Huskers if they want to reach the Rose Bowl.
“He’s a huge part of our team and gives us an emotional lift,” Pelini said. “Rex just gives us another element.”
Burkhead is to Nebraska as senior running-back Montee Ball is to Wisconsin.
The new FBS leader in career touchdowns bypassed the NFL to try and help the Badgers win their third-straight conference title, but 2012 proved to be far from smooth sailing for the defending champs.
The team started off the season 1-1, fired their offensive coordinator 14 days into the season and spiraled to a third-place finish in their division. But thanks to Ohio State and Penn State’s punishments, Wisconsin has a chance to avenge its blown 17-point lead in Lincoln.
Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema wasn’t focused on his team’s standing in the Leaders Division. Instead he recognized the opportunity that lies ahead for his squad.
“We have a tremendous opportunity, something I know our kids will be excited for,” Bielema said. “[Despite our record] we did get ourselves into the championship game and have the chance to play for a Big Ten championship.”
Like Bielema, Pelini isn’t focused on the past. He recognized his team’s Legends Division crown, but explained how the season up to this point is incomplete. He has his eyes on the ultimate prize and hopes his group is focused on more than just reaching Indy.
“We’re not done, we have one left. We’re going to have to play well next week,” Pelini said. “I told them to enjoy it [Saturday], but we’re looking for something more than winning our division.”