October 2, 2011

Wisconsin stakes claim to contender status

MADISON, Wis. - On this night, no one was telling Big Ten jokes.

No one sardined into Camp Randall Stadium wearing red was poking fun at the Big Ten and its abysmal track record on the national stage.

Nope. On this night, none of that mattered. Instead, up and down State Street before the game and in the stands during the game, everyone was celebrating what makes the Big Ten great. Saturday was a big deal, as Nebraska was playing its first league game as a Big Ten member in the first matchup pitting top-10 teams in this stadium since 1962.

There were no SEC snobs on hand to see the Badgers rudely welcome Nebraska into the Big Ten with a 48-17 beatdown that, frankly, wasn't even that close. Too bad.

"I just want to enjoy the night," said Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema, whose team is 5-0 and thinking big.

There is a lot to enjoy, as this Wisconsin team is good. And it may even be great. But if this was a preview of the Big Ten title game, then just cancel it.

We know Wisconsin is going to run away with the Leaders Division. Let's hope a team other than Nebraska ends up winning the Legends Division.

Michigan? Michigan State? Iowa?


But there's a bigger question than one about who wins the Legends Division: Is this Wisconsin team good enough to play for the BCS title?

"That's a good football team," Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. "They played well; we didn't. I give them all the credit in the world; they played well. We knew that they were a good football team coming in."

The Badgers sure looked national-title worthy in dispatching Nebraska. With T a shell of its former self, Wisconsin clearly is the Big Ten's best team. The Badgers are going to get a lot of attention.

Pelini knows it.

"I apologize to the fans of Nebraska," he said. "Because that was a joke. Plain and simple."

[Saturday wrap: Megargee's winners and losers]

Could Wisconsin beat LSU? Could the Badgers topple Alabama? Could Wisconsin defeat Oklahoma? If things keep playing out like they did Saturday night, the Badgers may get a chance to show it in the BCS title game in New Orleans in January.

Who in the Big Ten is going to beat this team? Wisconsin will be favored in every remaining game, with its toughest tests figuring to come at Michigan State on Oct. 22 and at Illinois on Nov. 19. Forget about that trip to Ohio State on Oct. 29; that looks to be a cakewalk for the Badgers.

For the Badgers, it's all about the offense. In fact, this may be the best offense in the nation. The Badgers average 48.4 points and are winning games by an average of 38.2 points.

You can't find a weakness.

Massive, physical offensive line? Check.

Sensational tailback tandem? Check.

Big-play receivers? Check.

Superstar quarterback? Check.

[More Wisconsin coverage: BadgerBlitz.com]

"I see some things in practice that are exciting," Bielema said. "Our combination of running backs, receivers, o-line, quarterback - it could be a special group."

Wisconsin finished with 485 yards Saturday night, slicing through a Nebraska defense that looked like one of Bill Callahan's pillow-soft units. As usual, the Badgers were fueled by a strong rushing game, one that generated 230 yards. Montee Ball was the star, running 30 times for 150 yards and four touchdowns.

Nebraska's only chance to win this game was to trade points with Wisconsin. That meant quarterback Taylor Martinez needed to pass well.

He failed. Martinez was 12-of-23 for 177 yards, with no touchdowns and three interceptions.

While Martinez flopped, Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson shined. Time and again, Wilson made something out of nothing, offering a pump fake and buying time with his feet to elude defenders while also ripping off long, back-breaking runs.

"He throws the ball as well on the run as he does from the pocket," Bielema said.

[More Nebraska coverage: HuskerOnline.com]

Scott Tolzien, Jim Sorgi, Brooks Bollinger, John Stocco, Darrell Bevell ... they were nice Badgers quarterbacks. But they couldn't carry Wilson's helmet. Let's go ahead and reserve a place in Wisconsin lore for Wilson alongside icons such as Ameche, Dayne, brats and Leinenkugel.

"Russell Wilson is a good football player," Pelini said. "He hurt us with feet and his arm; he did a good job."

Wilson also cemented his status in a crowded Heisman derby. He was 14-of-20 for 255 yards, with two touchdowns and no picks. Badgers fans from Kenosha to Rhinelander should hit their knees and say an extra prayer that Russell opted to transfer to Wisconsin instead of Auburn after leaving North Carolina State.

"I had a friend tell me, the more real you get, the more unreal it will get," Bielema said. "And I think we are at that point now."

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Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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