Knocking off No. 6 Ohio State (10-0, 6-0 Big Ten) would go a long way toward erasing that asterisk hanging over the Badgers these days. Wisconsin, you see, actually trails the Buckeyes by two games in the Leaders Division, but it's the Badgers (7-3, 4-2) who are on their way to Indianapolis for a second straight year because Ohio State is ineligible for the postseason. (So is Penn State, which until last weekend led the Badgers, too.)
"We don't want to leave any doubt," Wisconsin left tackle Rick Wagner said. "We want to beat them."
Ohio State was banned from the postseason and forced to vacate the 2010 season as part of its punishment for NCAA violations under former coach Jim Tressel. Few would have expected the ban to mean a whole lot after the Buckeyes went 6-7 last year, their first losing record in more than 20 years. Yet here they are, one of the last unbeaten teams in the country.
The Buckeyes have known all along they weren't going anywhere once the season ends. They may not like it, but they made peace with their predicament months ago. That doesn't mean, however, that this has to be another lost season.
Far from it.
A win Saturday would give the Buckeyes the outright title in the Leaders Division—the Big Ten has said Ohio State is still eligible for that. Just as important, it would give them a share of conference bragging rights, regardless of what happens in next month's conference championship game.
So as badly as the Badgers want to prove they're deserving of a spot in the title game, the Buckeyes want just as much to show they're not.
"It's real big. We, at the end of the season, want everybody to look at us as the best team in the Big Ten even though we can't go to the Big Ten championship game," Buckeyes receiver Corey Brown said. "As of right now, we are the best team in the Big Ten. There's no doubt about it. Obviously, a win this week going there will give us another big road win. We went to Penn State, we went to Michigan State. Another big road win, it'll be no question who's the best team."
Funny he should say that, because recent Ohio State-Wisconsin games have only made the question of who's the best in the Big Ten more confusing.
Two years ago, Ohio State was unbeaten and No. 1 in the country, rolling to what seemed like a certain spot in the national title game. Then the Buckeyes went to Madison.
David Gilreath returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown, and the Buckeyes never recovered. They were down 21-3 by halftime and wound up losing 31-18, a loss that stings almost as much as the sanctions that wiped it—and every other game that season—out.
"The thing I continually think about is when we were ranked No. 1 a couple of years ago going into their house. They took that away," Ohio State cornerback Travis Howard said. "A lot of guys on the team, especially the seniors, are continually thinking about that moment and don't want it to happen again—especially with the perfect season we're having."
The Buckeyes got a little payback last season, one of the few bright spots in their otherwise miserable year. Wisconsin had worked its way up to No. 4 and was starting to hear some BCS chatter, only to have Michigan State silence it with a deflected Hail Mary heave. The Badgers were still reeling a week later when Ohio State did pretty much the same thing, with Braxton Miller dancing around like a jitterbug before finding Devin Smith on a 40-yard scoring pass with 20 seconds left.
Wisconsin still wound up in the Rose Bowl after beating the Spartans in the Big Ten title game. But don't for a second think the Badgers have let that loss go.
"Sure, it comes up a lot in the players' minds. That was a game felt we could have won and we didn't," Wisconsin's Montee Ball said. "We just tell everybody that same thing can happen if we don't go out and execute the way we want to. And the way we plan to."
Ball needs just two more touchdowns to become major college football's all-time leader, and he and the Badgers would like nothing more than for him to get the record at home. But the first priority is winning the game, which is why Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema has said he will play his starters despite already being in the Big Ten title game.
"We don't want people to say we made it there by default," Ball said. "But our main goal is to win out. We fell short three times, and we don't want it to happen again."
Yes, the standings matter. Even when they don't.
AP Sports Writer Rusty Miller contributed to this report from Columbus, Ohio.