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Wisconsin sets sights on overdue title run

MADISON, Wis. -- If one college football program defined what it meant to be very good in the aughts, Wisconsin fit the description.

The Badgers averaged 8.6 victories between 2000-09. They won nine or more games six times and endured only one losing season (5-7 in 2001). They went to nine bowl games, including four in January, and took home five bowl championship trophies. They had five top-25 finishes, including a No. 7 in 2006.

Not a bad decade, right? A very good one, in fact. If you told every FBS head coach and athletic director that the next decade would look like Wisconsin's most recent 10-year stretch, almost all of them would take it and run before you could change your mind.

There was just one thing missing in Wisconsin's recent run of success: a Big Ten championship. The Badgers won three of them in the 1990s, including back-to-back crowns in 1998 and 1999. Seven Big Ten teams won or shared league championships in the aughts, but the Badgers, amazingly, weren't one of them.

The lack of a Big Ten championship is the only thing that took a great decade and dropped it down a notch to very good.

As a new decade dawns, Wisconsin players and coaches want to scratch their 11-year itch.

"My senior year, more than anything else, all I want to do is win a Big Ten title," safety Jay Valai said. "But we can't get too far ahead. I was here, two years in a row where we came in highly ranked. The first year we went 9-4 and lost to Tennessee [in the Outback Bowl] and the next year, we barely beat Cal Poly to go to a bowl game.

"So if you start thinking ahead and start thinking big-time this, big-time that, instead of going to Florida or California for a bowl game, you end up staying in Oshkosh. We've got to keep our eyes on the prize."

Wisconsin once again will enter a season with buzz and lofty expectations, and for good reason.

Of the four Big Ten teams that won bowl games in December/January, Wisconsin returns the most starters with 18, including 10 on offense.

The Badgers aren't dealing with a quarterback competition for the first time in recent memory, as senior Scott Tolzien locked up the top job with efficient play in 2009. They boast a Heisman Trophy candidate in running back John Clay, and return all five starters on the offensive line. The defense loses a few key pieces, but Big Ten Freshman of the Year Chris Borland is back at outside linebacker, and players like Valai and defensive end J.J. Watt are poised for big seasons.

Aside from the loss of backup quarterback Curt Phillips to a torn ACL, life is good for head coach Bret Bielema and his players. But they also know they can never get too comfortable.

"If we're going to be any good, guys have got to improve," offensive coordinator Paul Chryst said. "You can't just stay status quo. We're not a team that you can roll the ball out and say, 'Here we come.'"

And if players need more motivation, the coaches can always cite 2008.

Wisconsin entered that season ranked 13th nationally and rose to No. 8 before enduring a four-game losing streak that torpedoed any hope of a Big Ten championship. As Valai recalled, it took a 1-point home win against Cal Poly simply to secure a winning record.

"That was probably one of my most talented football teams," Bielema said, "but talent doesn't always equal chemistry, and chemistry is the key ingredient to winning. As a coach, you file it away. You learn from every year, probably more so than players.

"Some of our most significant players weren't around for '08 or definitely weren't playing."

Tolzien wasn't playing back then, but he certainly remembered what went wrong. And as a leader, he makes sure his teammates are aware that preseason hype doesn't mean much.

"Coach B preaches it, he says the history's there, and we're not going to avoid history," Tolzien said. "We remember what happened, and chemistry was a big issue. For me, it all starts with the seniors. We've got to keep everyone on board. It's up to us to show the young guys how to work and how to carry ourselves."

Wisconsin got back to work in 2009, and Bielema has often talked about how the team reclaimed its identity.

The Badgers led the Big Ten in both rushing and scoring. They recorded five more takeaways and six fewer giveaways than the previous season. They improved from 44th in rush defense in 2008 to fifth last fall (88.2 ypg).

About the only thing they didn't do was beat the Big Ten's best teams. Wisconsin lost to league champ Ohio State, runner-up Iowa and fourth-place finisher Northwestern -- three teams with a combined record of 30-9.

"We beat the teams we were supposed to beat, but the ranked teams that we played, we didn't beat," Tolzien said. "We've just got to keep preparing, so that we can have the best season as possible in 2010."

And make the jump from very good to great once again.