For some reason known only to football coach-turned-athletic director Barry Alvarez, the No. 1 goal for the University of Wisconsin football team has been to play in a Jan. 1 bowl game.
Preferably, that meant going to the Rose Bowl. But, really, any bowl would do as long as it was played on New Year’s Day.
One would think a program such as UW’s would aspire to greater heights, but a Jan. 1 bowl has been the Badgers’ goal since Alvarez took over the program in 1990. Bret Bielema hasn’t changed the tune much since he succeeded Alvarez in 2006.
So the berth in the Champs Sports Bowl on Dec. 29 in Orlando, Fla., that UW received Sunday is, by the Badgers’ own measuring stick, a major letdown.
But at the risk of sounding like I’m selling tickets to the Champs, I say it’s silly to consider this bowl a step down. Indeed, the matchup between two 9-3 teams — 20th-ranked UW of the Big Ten and 14th-ranked Miami (Fla.) of the ACC — is better than the Badgers could have hoped for, better even than the New Year’s Day matchup with Auburn (7-5) in the Outback Bowl that it desired.
True, the Champs is a second-tier bowl, even in its own city. True, it’s not the payday that the New Year’s Day bowls are. True, this will be UW’s fourth trip in five years to Orlando. And true, a game in Orlando will amount to a home game for Miami. But in the end, all that really matters about a bowl is the matchup on the field and this is a matchup that conceivably could have a favorable outcome for UW.
When several UW players met with the media earlier this week, their intent was clear: They want to make a statement. They want to send a message that the program is back after sliding into obscurity last season.
For a number of reasons, the Champs will give the Badgers a great stage upon which to get that done.
• Despite the second-tier bowl status, UW-Miami should generate considerable national interest.
The Champs is one of only three non-BCS bowls that match ranked teams. The Capital One with No. 11 Penn State and No. 13 LSU and the Las Vegas with No. 15 BYU and No. 16 Oregon State are the others.
Plus, the game is in prime time on ESPN and will be the only game available to college football fans in that time slot. With so many games on New Year’s Day, sometimes the early ones such as the Outback Bowl get lost in the shuffle.
• UW will get a chance at bowl redemption.
The Badgers weren’t enthused about going back to the Champs, but at least it will give them a second chance after they didn’t get it right last year. Their 29-point loss to Florida State, another ACC school, was in many ways the genesis for the renewed focus among the Badgers this season, so a victory over Miami would be a perfect way to wrap up the season.
• UW will get a chance for a badly needed victory over a ranked team.
The Badgers haven’t beaten a ranked team from a BCS conference since they beat Michigan in 2007, a string of six losses. In all, UW is 2-8 against ranked teams from BCS conferences under Bielema. A game against Miami will give UW a chance to break its streak, something a game against unranked Auburn couldn’t do.
• Miami might have a higher profile and national ranking than Auburn, but it might not be as good as Auburn.
If you believe in conference superiority, then a case can be made that Auburn would have been a tougher opponent than Miami. For one thing, the ACC was 2-5 in head-to-head matchups with the SEC this year.
And while the Big Ten has been bashed — rightfully so — for its poor bowl record, the ACC has been worse. The SEC has led the way with a 13-4 record over the least two years while the Big Ten has been 4-11 and the ACC 4-12.
• Both teams were snubbed by other bowls, so neither one has the all-important psychological edge going into the bowl.
The Hurricanes are hopping mad that the Gator Bowl chose 6-6 Florida State over them because it wanted to have the final game of coach Bobby Bowden’s career. Similarly, the Badgers aren’t happy about the Outback Bowl bypassing them in favor of Northwestern, though their two-point loss to the Wildcats would seem to justify the Outback’s decision.