Wisconsin, Oregon seek to climb over each other to reach the top rung of college football

the_catchThey’ve built successful programs, each a fixture in The Top 25 for the last twenty years, but neither team has won a national championship.

With a win over the other in the Rose Bowl, Wisconsin or Oregon takes a leap forward as a national program.

photo left: The Ducks came close in the National Championship Game last year, tying it late on this sensational catch by Jeff Maehl, but victory has eluded them in big games.

The Badgers have had a little more success. They won three Rose Bowls under Barry Alvarez, finishing number two in the country after a win over Stanford in the 2000 game. The very next year the Ducks earned their highest finish, demolishing Colorado in the Fiesta Bowl, also finishing number two.

Both of the current head coaches, Bret Bielema of Wisconsin and Chip Kelly of Oregon, took over from tremendously popular head coaches that built a program over a long and accomplished tenure in Barry Alvarez and Mike Bellotti. Both Bielema and Kelly were hand-picked, Bielema as Alvarez’s former defensive coordinator, Kelly as the Ducks offensive guru, mastermind of a 2007 team that seemed destined to challenge for the elusive national title slot until Dennis Dixon went down with a late-season knee injury.

Each school knew years of misery before their recent emergence. In 1967 and ’68, the Badgers didn’t win a game. Just before Alvarez was hired in 1990, they had nine total wins over the previous six years. Oregon, meanwhile was a conference doormat for most of the ’70s and ’80s, not making a single bowl game from 1965 to 1989, until they bought their way in to an Independence Bowl game against Tulsa. They won and a drought was ended. Over the next 22 years, under Brooks, Bellotti, and chief program benefactor Phil Knight, Oregon steadily rose, implementing a sexy offensive style, fashion-forward uniform choices and an ambitious facilities expansion, until now when the Ducks are the second most popular team among fans 17 and younger, behind the Florida Gators.

Success on the field has helped. The Ducks have won three straight conference championships, finishing 8th, 11th and 3rd in the country from 2008-2010, and are 4th this season, pending the bowl game.The Badgers won 3 Rose Bowls under Alvarez, finishing #2 in 2000 after a win over Stanford. The very next year the Ducks reached the same plateau by pummeling Colorado in the Fiesta Bowl. The back-to-back #2 finishes are the closest either school has come to a title, with the Ducks losing by a last-second field goal in last year’s BCS.

Chip Kelly is 36-6 since taking over. Beilema is 60-18, with two conference championships, 2-4 in bowl games. But neither coach has won a national title, and the two are a combined 0-3 in BCS bowls, each losing the Rose in their only appearance. Last year, Wisconsin lost a close game to undefeated TCU in Pasadena, 22-19. In the 2010 game, Oregon met Ohio State, suffering a career performance by Terrell Pryor and several unforced errors in crumbling to the Buckeyes, 26-18.

Like it or not, the Ducks and Badgers have forged an identity as nice little schools that are always in the running for the conference title, always a fixture in The Top 25, but a step below elite in their accomplishments. They get mentioned as contenders every year, but after the Alabamas, LSUs and Oklahomas.

They’ve been close, been entertaining, been competitive, but rarely got it done on the big stage. A win in the Rose Bowl over the other would begin to change the national perception of the winning program, and cement the reputation of the loser.  With a win over the Badgers, if they find a solution to their physical size, offensive talent and hard-hitting defense, the Ducks can shake their label as a team that can’t match up to physical teams or elite schools or teams that have extra time to prepare.

A win also places Oregon in the top five of next year’s preseason poll, and an impressive win makes them number one or two. As long as the BCS race remains a poll and a computer algorithm, that matters.  A top starting ranking is like pole position in a NASCAR race. The Ducks have an SEC-style creampuff out of conference schedule next fall, with all their September games at home. It sets up for a title run, provided they begin their campaign with a win over the Badgers. Lose the Granddaddy, and it becomes much harder to overcome that persistent perception of not-quite elite, the Buffalo Bills of college football, the bridesmaid with the hot body but the bad skin.

All that is back story, and in no way on the mind of players and coaches. But each school has reached the point where getting there is no longer enough. It’s time, as Nick Aliotti said  the interview room after the PAC-12 Championship Game, to win one of these darned things.