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Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
MADISON, Wis. -- Wisconsin's recent success is encapsulated on Page 8 of the team's 2008 football media guide, under the heading, "Bowling with the Badgers. A fixture in January."
As noted on the page, the Badgers are one of only three teams to reach January bowl games in each of the last four seasons. Most college football fans can easily name the other two squads -- USC and West Virginia -- but Wisconsin often gets omitted from discussions about the nation's football elite. The reason? No BCS appearances.
The Badgers are the national model for very good, but to earn a more glowing adjective next to their name, they need to make one of the big five. USC has earned a BCS berth in each of the last four seasons, while West Virginia punched its ticket after both the 2005 and 2007 seasons.
Wisconsin certainly had the credentials for BCS selection in 2006, producing an 11-1 regular season and finishing sixth in the BCS standings, but superior seasons by Ohio State and Michigan left the Badgers on the outside.
"When it comes down to it, we didn't take care of our business to get us there," Badgers senior linebacker DeAndre Levy said Sunday at media day in Camp Randall Stadium. "The past couple years, we were a game or two away. Every game is important, so we can't look past anybody, like a lot of people may be doing on the outside."
The Badgers enter the fall on the BCS fringe, ranked in the 10-15 range in most preseason polls and generally considered to be the Big Ten's No. 2 team. They return arguably the league's deepest running back corps, all five starting offensive linemen from last season, an All-American tight end in Travis Beckum and veteran players both at linebacker and defensive line.
There's some uncertainty at quarterback, but perhaps the biggest question about the Badgers is: Can they take the next step?
Linebacker Jonathan Casillas likes the team's position and disposition.
"It's been different," Casillas said. "I can see it in the guys' faces and the way they're approaching the workouts and the runs and practice. It seems like they're a lot more hungry than they were last year, myself included. Being ranked so high last year hurt us in the long run. A lot of guys just settled into that and basically just let everything come to them instead of going out and getting it. That's what it looks like people are doing now."
Third-year coach Bret Bielema is one of only four Big Ten coaches to win 21 or more games in their first two seasons in the league. The difference is the other three -- Ohio State's Jim Tressel, Michigan's Fielding Yost and Penn State's Joe Paterno -- all reached BCS bowls or their equivalent (Yost's teams won Big Ten titles in 1901 and 1902).
Though Bielema on Sunday restated the 2006 team's BCS case and noted Wisconsin's exclusive company in January bowls, he also addressed what it takes to reach a BCS bowl and referenced his experience as a Kansas State coach in 2003.
"A lot of times it really gets down to staying healthy," Bielema said, "and then there's just these one or two guys that come out of nowhere and have a special senior year. Someone that does something out of the ordinary. There were a couple guys that were unsung heroes on our Big 12 championship team, guys that really, none of them had really done anything."
Who those players could be this fall remains to be seen. Fullback Chris Pressley might be one. Middle linebacker Jaevery McFadden isn't a senior, but he could be another.
"Collectively, the ship is stronger than it's been," Levy said. "The past couple years, there have been one or two guys you could always look to. This year, it's four, five, six guys out there, trying to get this team where we need to be."