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Wisconsin can change national perceptions with win vs. Alabama

MADISON, Wis. -- One of the factoids you may hear this week is that no two schools in college football have longer New Year's Day bowl game streaks than Alabama and Wisconsin. It's a neat little tidbit that serves as a reminder of each program's star power in the buildup to the game of college football's opening weekend.

It's also slightly misleading.

Yes, Wisconsin has been to five consecutive New Year's Day bowl games. The Badgers also are 1-4 in those contests, with three Rose Bowl losses, a Capital One Bowl loss and an Outback Bowl overtime victory against an Auburn team that finished fourth in the SEC West last season. Alabama, meanwhile, has played on or after Jan. 1 in seven straight years, with four victories -- including three national championships.

Those records reveal vital distinctions between the two programs in expectation levels and national perception. Alabama reloads with a top-ranked recruiting class and competes for national titles every season. Wisconsin finds less heralded three-star players and competes for Big Ten titles with the hope of playing in a solid Jan. 1 bowl game -- a good team every season but rarely a threat to be great.

But when No. 20 Wisconsin and No. 3 Alabama open the season at 8 p.m. ET Saturday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, the Badgers have an opportunity to change both expectations and perceptions about their program. Beat the Crimson Tide and anything is possible.

"If we win this first game, if you look at the rest of the schedule, it's pretty much set up to hopefully go undefeated this season," Badgers running back Corey Clement said.

"Everyone's aware of the kind of team that Alabama is," Wisconsin quarterback Joel Stave added. "So if we are able to go in there and beat them, I think that would really speak volumes for the kind of program that we have here."

Wisconsin's players said this week they know they're plenty capable of proving pundits wrong -- the Badgers are listed as 10-point underdogs, the first time they have been double-digit dogs in three years. Still, recent history against Power 5 conference teams from outside the Big Ten is hard to shake. Before Wisconsin's victory against Auburn in last season's bowl game, the Badgers had lost six such games in a row. Beginning with the 2012 Rose Bowl, Wisconsin lost, in order, to Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford, Arizona State, South Carolina and LSU.

Throw in a 59-0 loss to eventual national champion Ohio State in the Big Ten title game last December that Clement described as "just embarrassing," and it's easy to see why Badgers players believe they have much to demonstrate. Alabama went on to lose to Ohio State in the national semifinal by a far more respectable 42-35 margin.

"Hopefully this game is going to bring out our best," Clement said. "We just don't want to put on the same show we did against Ohio State."

Opportunities like the one Wisconsin has Saturday to make a national statement and stamp itself as a title-caliber team rarely come along. It is no stretch to suggest a win would represent the most significant early-season nonconference victory for the Badgers in 41 years, since Sept. 21, 1974, when Wisconsin beat fourth-ranked Nebraska of the Big Eight, 21-20, at home. At the very least, it would give the Big Ten West-favored Badgers confidence to know they might stand a chance against seemingly unbeatable Ohio State in a potential conference championship game rematch this December.

"This game is a big game, and it's probably happening because of what both programs have done previous years," first-year Badgers coach Paul Chryst said. "What it really means is we've got a great opportunity to play against a heck of a football team that has recent and long tradition, and most importantly, it's the start of our season. And what a great opportunity we have to go play at an unbelievable venue against a really, really good football team."

Badgers athletic director Barry Alvarez, a member of the College Football Playoff selection committee, has made a point of boosting the program's nonconference schedule strength. Last season, Wisconsin opened with a 28-24 loss to LSU in Houston. Next season, Wisconsin and LSU will meet at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Alvarez scheduled the games despite LSU and Alabama declining to agree to a home-and-home series at each school's campus. That's how important he felt the games were for a potential Wisconsin push toward the playoff, with an increased emphasis on schedule strength helping to decide the final four teams.

"This is the reason you come to a school like this," Stave said. "This is the reason you play college football is to play teams like Alabama."

To play teams like Alabama is one thing. To win is another -- something that could help elevate Wisconsin's national perception and provide the program with visions of a truly meaningful post-New Year's Day game.