On New Year's Day, the best and most appropriate day for overdosing on college football games, Wisconsin will appear in its third straight Rose Bowl. That noteworthy accomplishment will be somewhat tarnished by the fact that the Badgers have lost five games this season and managed to sneak into the prestigious game (the "granddaddy of them all") largely because Ohio State and Penn State, which finished ahead of them in the Big Ten standings, were ineligible for postseason play.
As we all know by now, athletic director Barry Alvarez, who led the Badgers to three Rose Bowl victories in 1994, 1999 and 2000, will coach Wisconsin after Bret Bielema, whose teams were 0-2 in Pasadena, departed for Arkansas. Expect Brent Musberger, one of the most insufferable play-by-play guys, to return to that particular storyline again and again throughout the broadcast on ESPN (4 p.m.).
Unranked Wisconsin is the clear underdog to sixth-ranked Stanford. But unlike the 2012 game, when the Badgers lost, 38-45, to Oregon's fast-paced, no-huddle offense, this edition of the "granddaddy of them all" does not figure to be high scoring. Stanford boasts the third best defense against the run in college football this year, giving up fewer than 88 yards on the ground each game.
Wisconsin, of course, loves to run. In its 70-31 win over Nebraska in the Big Ten title game, Wisconsin quarterback Curt Phillips attempted only eight passes, with running back James White and receiver Jared Abbrederis chipping in one apiece. Behind the junior White, freshman Melvin Gordon and senior Montee Ball, who claimed the 2012 Doak Walker trophy as the top running back in the country, Wisconsin averages over 237 yards rushing per game.
But can they do it against Stanford?
Perhaps the Cardinal's signature game of the season can provide some insight. In a 17-14 overtime victory at Oregon, which was ranked number one in the country at the time, Stanford stifled the Ducks' potent offense, holding them to less than 200 yards rushing, well below their average of 325 per game. Superstar running back Kenjon Barner managed just 66 yards on 21 carries. It was the Ducks' only loss of the year and knocked them out of contention for the national championship.
What about Stanford's offense?
"It looks a lot like our offense," says junior defensive tackle Ethan Hemer after watching Stanford on film. "They're a sound, disciplined, physical team. They're like what we've been trained to play against."
So in a game like this, with two smash-mouth teams, the result might rest on which squad comes in better prepared.
Which brings us back to Alvarez. He's been doing two jobs this month, flying around the country interviewing coaching candidates and also overseeing the football operation as interim head coach. All three coordinators - Chris Ash and Charlie Partridge on defense and Matt Canada on offense - have accepted jobs to coach elsewhere next year, as have many of the position coaches.
Meanwhile, Stanford head coach David Shaw just received what's been called a "long-term" extension (details were not released). The Cardinal's coaching staff is as stable as Wisconsin's is in tumult. Unlike the Badgers, who beat just one decent team this year (Nebraska in the conference championship), Stanford handled USC, Oregon State, Oregon and UCLA, which it beat twice in a row to end the season. And at a time when college athletics is under increased scrutiny for being far more about revenues than academics, Stanford continues to excel with true student athletes who succeed at one of the most competitive universities in the country.
I'd say that the UW should erect a statue of Alvarez if he manages to pull this one out, but they already did that. Maybe they'll just make it bigger.