Rose Bowl teams inch closer to elite

LOS ANGELES -- There are between 120 and 160 plays in a college football game. Most are unremarkable. A 41-yard punt. A 3-yard run. An 8-yard pass on third and 10. But, really, who's to say one of the 22 players on the field couldn't have transformed the game if he'd just been a little bit better on any given play? A block lasting one more second, a linebacker reacting a split second quicker, the arc of a pass reduced by an inch.

Oregon lost last year's national championship game 22-19 when Auburn kicked a field goal on the last play of the game. Wisconsin lost 21-19 to TCU in last year's Rose Bowl after the Badgers failed to convert a two-point play for the tie with two minutes left.

For fans of both teams, those were singular moments of excruciation. For the players, it's much more difficult because it's not that simple.

"There are so many factors that go into a two-point loss that you can't ascribe it to anything," Wisconsin center Peter Konz said. "Maybe we weren't cheering loud enough. ... It's hard to just blame it on one thing when it's two points."

But what a difference those small margins make. And not just in terms of the single game.

Only 35 teams can end their seasons with bowl wins. Only five will win BCS bowl games. One will be handed a crystal football and called national champion. A program can be good without winning a BCS bowl game. It can be thoroughly respectable. Hey, just getting there is worthy of celebration, right?

Ah, but there's an invisible yet rigorously protected line that separates those that win BCS bowl games and national championships and those that don't. There are teams with trophies and teams with "what if?" There is a celebrated legacy, and there is lasting regret. There is Nebraska and Tom Osborne before 1994, and Nebraska and Tom Osborne after 1994.

Oregon and Wisconsin can relate in the small and big pictures. Both are highly successful football programs. The Ducks are 52-13 over the past five years. Wisconsin is 32-7 over the past three. Both have won conference championships. Heck, the Badgers won consecutive Rose Bowls after the 1998 and 1999 seasons, and Oregon has been in the national title picture three times -- 2001, 2007 and 2010 -- in the past decade.

But both lost BCS games last year in the waning moments. And both are toeing but have yet to cross that invisible line that establishes a program as elite instead of merely very good.

One will take a significant step forward when they meet in the Rose Bowl on Monday. And one will be left, again, with a very good season punctuated by regret, wondering about a handful of plays that could have gone differently -- if only┬ů

For Oregon, it's a case of either national vindication or a third consecutive BCS bowl loss and a more firmly tethered tag of "can't win the big one." That comes with pressure the Ducks admit feeling.

"Yeah, there is for me personally," senior safety Eddie Pleasant said. "I feel like just because it's my last game, and we've been here twice and haven't gotten a BCS win, I feel that pressure. I feel like we need to win this game. This would be a statement game for us."

A Rose Bowl win would leave the Ducks wanting for only a national championship. They would unquestionably take a step up in the national perception pecking order. And they'd start the 2012 season ranked in the preseason top five.

For the Badgers, a Rose Bowl victory would mean this: The Big Ten has a new top dog, particularly with recent events on and off the field at Ohio State, a standard-bearer that carries the flag with a BCS bowl victory, not a defeat, a failing the Big Ten has had in seven of its past 10 BCS games.

"I think it would give this program the national recognition it deserves," Badgers left tackle Josh Oglesby said. "To go out and win against a top-five team in a BCS bowl game with all the talent they have would kind of quiet some of the criticism about us in big games against big opponents."

Both programs are trying to take that proverbial next step. A losing team wants to get to .500. A seven- or eight-win team wants double-digit wins. A 10-win team wants conference championships and BCS bowl games. A conference champion wants BCS bowl wins and national titles.

Asking Ducks coach Chip Kelly what his program needs to take this next step is not the sort of question he embraces. "If I had the answer, I'd have already done it," he reasonably notes.

He also knows there is a simple answer: continue to upgrade recruiting. The Ducks are as fast as the best SEC teams, but they learned against LSU that they need to get bigger while remaining just as fast. Wisconsin goes the other way: just as big -- bigger, in fact -- but not as fast.

It's also certain, however, that Kelly and Badgers coach Bret Bielema have entertained the question many times inside their heads. After all, every coach asks himself, "How can we get better?" Even the one holding the crystal football.

"We've got a chance in every game to compete and win," Kelly said. "You've got to execute when you've got an opportunity to play in big games. You've got to take advantage of the moment when you are there. But I don't think we're far away. You keep knocking at that wall, we'll eventually knock it down."

There are between 120 and 160 plays in a college football game. Either Oregon or Wisconsin is going to piece them together in the right way Monday and knock that door down. The other is going to ask, "What if?" from behind that invisible yet rigorously protected line.

Ted Miller covers the Pac-12 for ESPN.com. You can find his blog here.