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Badgers could smell Rose after strange year

As far as conference championship game participants go, they don't come much odder than Wisconsin.

The Badgers face Nebraska in Saturday's Big Ten championship game despite a 7-5 record and a third-place finish in the Leaders Division, which is in itself peculiar. According to ESPN Stats & Information, only three teams in BCS AQ conferences have ever played in a league title game with as many as five losses. The other two are UCLA last year (at 6-6) and Georgia Tech this year (at 7-5). Like Wisconsin, the other two teams benefited from other teams in their division being ineligible (for UCLA, USC; for Georgia Tech, Miami).

Six other teams have advanced to their championship games out of Conference USA and the MAC, where teams often accrue losses in the nonconference schedule before turning things around in league play. Wisconsin has little in common with those teams and differs even from 2011 UCLA or '12 Georgia Tech because it is a two-time defending Big Ten champion seeking its third straight Rose Bowl.

"It doesn't matter what the situation is or how we got here," Badgers coach Bret Bielema said. "It's one game for a chance at history. ... For us to be in the position we are today to go back to Indianapolis with a one-shot opportunity to go to the Rose Bowl is incredible."

How Wisconsin got here makes the story even more intriguing. Its five losses came by a combined 19 points, with three of them in overtime including the past two weeks against Ohio State and Penn State. Both losses in regulation, including the first meeting with Nebraska in the Big Ten opener, were decided by a field goal. In the games against the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions, the Badgers rallied to tie the score in the final minute of regulation only to lose on the first possession of overtime.

"You hate to go down that way," linebacker Chris Borland said. "But I like to see the fight we've had. As far as the reasons why, we've done things well but maybe haven't executed in the clutch like we could.

"But there's been no lack of effort in our preparation or execution, really. All the things you need to win are there. It's just a matter of sealing the deal."

Bielema, whose team also lost three close games in 2011, said he'd spent a large part of the offseason trying to figure out why the Badgers can't seem to get over the hump in tight contests. He might want to ask Nebraska's Bo Pelini, whose Huskers have won four games decided by six points or fewer and rallied to win five games in which they trailed in the second half, including against Wisconsin.

Pelini, though, doesn't have all the answers. He cites chemistry and experience, especially with a veteran quarterback in Taylor Martinez, as part of the reason for the success in close games. But that can't explain it all.

"Let's face it: there's some luck involved," Pelini said. "I don't know if there's a magical thing about it. We've been fortunate."

Wisconsin running back Montee Ball said the failures in close game has taught the team that "every play matters." He said he planned on reiterating that message all week and before and during Saturday's game, imploring his teammates to focus and avoid penalties and other mistakes.

Another way of looking at the Badgers season is that they just weren't good enough to beat quality teams. They defeated only one team this year that had a winning record -- Utah State -- and only escaped there when the Aggies missed a late, short field goal. They looked great in beating up on Indiana, Purdue and Illinois but average against the best of the Big Ten.

Nowhere was that more evident than on offense. Wisconsin steamrolled many of its lesser opponents and averaged 35.4 points per game in its wins. In their losses, the Badgers managed an average of just 16.4 points per game.

The defense has, somewhat surprisingly, remained the most consistent factor for Bielema all year long. Only one team, Nebraska, reached 30 points against Wisconsin this season, and since that game the defense has allowed just 16.6 points per contest.

"Down the stretch, between Indiana, Ohio State and Penn State, we played three of the best offenses in the conference, and I think we did well against each of them," Borland said. "Going into this game, we have a lot of confidence in our defense."

It's also true that this team has faced a lot of adversity, from the loss of six assistant coaches in the offseason to Ball's concussion in an attack right before fall practice to the firing of offensive line coach Mike Markuson just two weeks into the season to using three different starting quarterbacks.

"I'm amazed on a daily basis at the resiliency of this group," Bielema said.

Maybe the strangest thing about this odd season for the Badgers is that they're still alive with a legitimate chance at actually winning the Big Ten championship game.

"Obviously, we didn't want to lose those games," Ball said. "But one thing that coach [Bielema] told us is that whether we were 7-5 or 12-0, we'd still be in the same position right now, playing the same team. We're still looking forward to being Big Ten champs and heading to the Rose Bowl."