INDIANAPOLIS - If Don King was running the Big Ten, this is exactly how he would set up the championship game: If you want to be the champ, you've got to beat the champ.
But this isn't a title fight, and the Wisconsin Badgers, even with their back-to-back Big Ten championships in tow, aren't Floyd Mayweather. The Badgers will battle Nebraska on Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium with the conference championship at stake, but only after a week's worth of battling the perception that they don't belong here.
"I appreciate the question and I understand it totally," Badgers coach Brett Bielema said when asked if a team that finished third in the Leaders Division, went only 4-4 in Big Ten play and has lost three of its past four games is worthy of playing for a championship. Bielema said some of his players are calling Saturday's matchup an "eraser game," in which a victory could reset, perhaps even validate, Wisconsin's strange season.
"We're a 7-5 team that's looking for respect," Bielema said, adding that doubts about the Badgers "can all be washed away this Saturday."
Perhaps, though, even a victory won't change the fact that Wisconsin would be the first five-loss team ever to play in the Rose Bowl. But the Badgers believe their record doesn't reflect their talent level. "It's the best 7-5 team I've ever been a part of. The guys don't have a loser's mentality," the seventh-year Wisconsin coach said. "We've been emphasizing to our kids: If we'd have won all five games we lost, we'd still be here playing Nebraska. How we got here doesn't matter."
Especially since it didn't have much to do with the Badgers. Wisconsin just happened to be the beneficiary of a divisional alignment in which the two teams ahead of it, 12-0 Ohio State and 8-4 Penn State, have been disqualified from postseason play this year. "It's not our fault what happened to them," said Wisconsin tailback Montee Ball, who returned for his senior season hoping to win a Rose Bowl or even a national championship game. "We're definitely going to take this opportunity and we're going to run with it."
Not a bad idea, because the Badgers want the game to come down to running -- all the better to take the pressure off quarterback Curt Phillips, making his fourth career start. Ball gives the Badgers a way to move the football through Wisconsin's favorite method: by pushing and shoving their way down the field.
"This game isn't about X's and O's and tricking the other guy," said Nebraska coach Bo Pelini. "It's about doing what you do."
Strangely, what these two teams do well belies their reputations. Wisconsin, usually an offensive powerhouse, ranks second in the Big Ten in fewest points and yards allowed, a defensive showing that has allowed the Badgers to remain competitive even as they went through three quarterbacks. And the defense should be even more capable now that middle linebacker Chris Borland, who missed the teams' first meeting in Lincoln in September, has returned.
Meanwhile, Nebraska has emerged as an elite offensive team, with all-Big Ten quarterback Taylor Martinez surrounded by some of the league's fastest weapons. Only Ohio State scored more points than the Huskers this season, and senior H-back Rex Burkhead "is 100 percent again" after missing roughly half the season, according to Pelini.
The Cornhuskers have some of the league's quickest receivers and a quarterback who makes good decisions. A strange habit of fumbling the football is Nebraska's lone offensive hangup.
The Cornhuskers, who rallied from a 27-10 third-quarter deficit to beat Wisconsin 30-27 in Lincoln, have won 10 games for the third time in Pelini's five seasons, and their only two losses came against teams ranked fourth (Ohio State) and 17th (UCLA) in the current AP poll. The Huskers come to Indianapolis having won six consecutive games, and they needed them all to hold off Michigan for the Legends Division crown.
The Badgers have beaten only one team that finished the regular season with a winning record and that win, a 16-14 defeat of Utah State in September, was secured only because Aggies kicker Josh Thompson missed a 37-yard field goal in the final seconds. To be fair, though, all five losses were either by a three-point margin or came in overtime. "I don't think I've ever enjoyed, and felt as hurt with a team, as this year," Bielema said.
"None of that matters," Pelini insisted. "Wisconsin is here because they deserve to be."