The Rose Bowl is one of the great venues in sports. Those who have been fortunate to attend the annual college bowl game played there will describe the magical moment when the setting sun bathes the San Gabriel Mountains, looming over the stadium's rim, in a golden glow. From their seats, fans must choose between ogling the natural beauty of the surrounding landscape and keeping their eyes on the gridiron below.
The solution is to try and take it all in, enjoy as much of the whole atmosphere as possible. It's a task that applies just as well to this particular moment in our state's football history. Spend too much time obsessing over the Badgers and you risk missing out on UW-Whitewater, which recently claimed its third straight national title. And of course the Green Bay Packers continue to turn back nearly every opponent in their defense of a Super Bowl title.
The tenth-ranked Badgers have played a big role in this fairy tale football year, managing to make even their losses extraordinarily entertaining affairs. As with Green Bay, their star players - Russell Wilson, Montee Ball, Chris Borland, Nick Toon, Aaron Henry - are charismatic and engaging with the media. And they find themselves playing in the premier bowl game, the "granddaddy of them all," the best bowl available if you can't play in the Bowl Championship Series title game.
And unlike a year ago, when the Badgers faced Texas Christian, an outsider program hoping to throw the BCS process into disarray, Wisconsin enters this year's game as a six-point underdog to fifth-ranked Oregon, a team that's easy to root against. The big news out of Oregon this week literally placed style ahead of substance as Nike unveiled the duds (Nike calls it an "integrated uniform system") the Ducks will wear on Monday. It's the sartorial equivalent of picking up the kids from soccer in a Lamborghini. The Ducks will look less like a college football team than a futuristic, evil robot army.
To adherents of Wisconsin's run-first, pro-style, smash-mouth brand of football, Oregon's frantically paced spread-option attack represents pure evil. The Ducks average over 46 points and 515 yards of offense per game to Wisconsin's 44 and 466. Their no-huddle approach often finds the Ducks snapping the ball within 10 seconds of the end of the previous play. They're unlike any team Wisconsin has faced this season.
In addressing how the Badgers can handle Oregon's high-octane attack, Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema points to the Ducks' recent record in games where they've had extended time to prepare: the 2011 season opener against LSU, last season's BCS title game against Auburn and the 2010 Rose Bowl against Ohio State. All three were losses.
"These guys will be very hard to play within a week," Bielema said at his Dec. 19 press conference. "If you got done with a game on Saturday and you had to get ready [in a week], I think it would be a very difficult challenge. But the extended prep and the opportunity to kind of slow things down a little bit mentally is going to be great."
For his part, Bielema appears to be basking in the moment himself, tweeting on Monday, "Unique week with a great group of senior players and coaches that will have their last week with us. Will be a great week to embrace it all."
After the Rose Bowl, Bielema loses several key players, including Wilson, Toon and Henry along with All-American guard Kevin Zeitler and quite possibly Ball and center Peter Konz. His offensive coordinator, Paul Chryst, will leave for the head coaching job at Pittsburgh, taking highly regarded offensive line coach Bob Bostad with him.
At this point, a third consecutive trip to Pasadena seems highly unlikely, so forgive the coach if you spot him glancing at the San Gabriel Mountains during the game on Monday.