Bret Bielema and the Wisconsin Badgers took the step from very good to great this season, and they received a rosy reward for their efforts.
Wisconsin is headed back to the Rose Bowl for the first time in 11 seasons. After hovering just below elite status for the past decade, the Badgers got back to the top by fully embracing the values that defined the program under Barry Alvarez in the 1990s. They boast the nation's deepest group of running backs, one of the nation's best offensive lines, the perfect quarterback for their system in Scott Tolzien and several playmaking defenders, led by All-Big Ten end J.J. Watt.
A shaky start followed by a loss at Michigan State to open Big Ten play left many thinking the Badgers once again wouldn't get over the hump. Turns out, they never looked back, winning their final seven games and averaging 48.3 points in the process. Wisconsin recorded its first win against the nation's top-ranked team since 1981, and Bielema overcame his struggles on the road against ranked teams as the Badgers overcame several key injuries to rally past Iowa.
Power football became pretty football this fall, as Wisconsin reached the 70-point plateau three times and supplemented its offense with improved special-teams play and timely lifts from the defense.
Offensive MVP: Scott Tolzien. Wisconsin always produces great running backs and this year was no different, but Tolzien provided the pocket presence the Badgers have lacked for much of the past decade. Tolzien led the nation in completion percentage (74.3) and ranked fourth nationally in pass efficiency (169.8 rating). He executed the play-action to perfection and ended the season as one of the Big Ten's hottest players.
Defensive MVP: J.J. Watt. An easy choice here as Watt made more game-changing plays than any Big Ten defender and was a close second to Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan for Big Ten defensive player of the year. The mammoth junior recorded 21 tackles for loss, seven sacks, 10 quarterback hurries, seven pass breakups, three forced fumbles, three blocked kicks, two fumble recoveries and an interception. Translation: Watt was an absolute beast.
Turning point: In the first six games, the Badgers had showed very little to suggest they could knock off top-ranked Ohio State on Oct. 16. But from the opening kickoff, which David Gilreath returned for a 97-yard touchdown, the Badgers took control and never let the Buckeyes get comfortable. Wisconsin controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball and received big performances from Watt, John Clay, James White and others. The Badgers followed up the historic win with an equally huge one the next week at Iowa.
What's next: Wisconsin heads to Pasadena to face TCU in the Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio. The Badgers look for their fourth consecutive victory in the Rose Bowl after capturing championships in 1994, 1999 and 2000. TCU has scored just as many points (520) as the Badgers this season, and the Horned Frogs' defense provides a major test for Tolzien, the running backs and the line.