FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — There are 76 college football teams participating in bowl games this season that have no bearing on the national championship. Wisconsin is among that group, playing in an Orange Bowl game that essentially serves as a glorified exhibition.
But don’t try telling Wisconsin coaches and players that their showdown against Miami on Saturday night isn’t important just because the Badgers missed out on the four-team playoff. Even without a title on the line, they insist there is still plenty for which to play.
“Every team that plays in a bowl game, they want to win their last game, I think for a lot of reasons,” Badgers coach Paul Chryst said Friday morning. “It’s the last game for us that this group will be together.
“You’re proud of what they’ve done, and I think our team is proud of what they’ve done, and yet they know we’re not finished yet, and we certainly know that it won’t be easy going up against a really good Miami team. They’re well-coached, talented. But I think every team, we’re no different. You want to finish it out the best that you can, and you’d like to win it.”
Motivation this time of year for teams whose dreams haven’t been realized can be an issue. Four weeks ago, Wisconsin stood on the precipice of breaking into the College Football Playoff for the first time in school history. All Wisconsin needed was a victory against Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game to remain undefeated and elevate the program to new heights. But that vision vanished in the waning minutes of a 27-21 loss to the Buckeyes.
In the aftermath, there was devastation, and players required time to regroup.
“I felt it for about two weeks,” Wisconsin cornerback Nick Nelson told reporters. “But you know, we had some time. I went home for a couple days and I cleared my mind. We got back to practice, and I could still feel it, but it’s not as bad.”
Once the Badgers recognized the opportunity at hand, they were able to shift their focus. Wisconsin can win 13 games in a season for the first time in school history. The Badgers would join Ohio State in 2002 and 2014, as well as Michigan State in 2013, as the only Big Ten teams to win 13 games in a season.
A victory also would likely allow Wisconsin to finish in the top 5 of the Associated Press poll for the fourth time in program history. The other three times: 1942, 1962 and 1999.
“A lot of people on our team love the game, love being around each other, and knowing that this is our last time playing with this same group, I feel like everybody is going to go hard,” Nelson said
Added Badgers linebacker T.J. Edwards: “I think everybody in the country wants to be in the playoff, but you know, just with how the season turned out, it’s not where we ended up. But we worked like crazy to get to this point, and we’ve had a really good season thus far. This last game is our national championship.”
Wisconsin won more than nine games to open a season for the first time in school history. Yet even as the Badgers continued to excel, questions persisted about where they stood in the college football hierarchy. A loss to Ohio State served to validate the beliefs of many who thought the Badgers weren’t worthy of playoff inclusion.
A win against Miami won’t change Wisconsin’s national title drought. But it could go a long way toward demonstrating to the nation just how good the Badgers really are, given Miami’s speed, skill and No. 11 ranking in the AP poll.
All that matters to the Badgers is that they send this team out the right way. And there will be no shortage of motivation.
“We were playing for one thing, and that was to be the Big Ten champions,” Chryst said. “We didn’t win. And fortunately we’ve got another opportunity for that team, this team, our team to play — and that’s against a really good Miami team. If we score one or more points than them, then we’ve earned the right to be Orange Bowl champions. That’s something to really be proud of.”