By DAVE CAMPBELL, AP Sports Writer
Wisconsin has been to the Big Ten championship game four times before over the first six editions of the event. Never have the Badgers been in a position like this when they arrive in Indianapolis.
If they beat Ohio State, well, that strength-of-schedule skepticism will be reduced to a dull roar. The Badgers would be unbeaten, an impossible-to-ignore feat for the College Football Playoff committee.
“We just think about one more win. That’s the only thing we can focus on,” running back Jonathan Taylor said. “We don’t know what the future will hold, but the only thing we know is we have one more game left and we’ve got to make sure we get it done.”
With a 31-0 victory at rival Minnesota on Saturday, the Badgers (12-0, 9-0) finished undefeated in Big Ten play for the first time since a five-game conference slate in 1912.
Losses by then-No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Miami gave Wisconsin more space to move up when the newest CFP rankings are released on Tuesday. The Badgers, who moved up from No. 5 to No. 3 in the AP Top 25, will play No. 8 Ohio State.
The sight of those silver helmets with the buckeye leaf stickers under the Lucas Oil Field roof will bring back some bad memories for the Badgers and their fans. They lost 59-0 in 2014 to the Buckeyes , who used the lopsided victory to sneak ahead of Big 12 co-champions TCU and Baylor for the fourth seed in the inaugural four-team playoff before beating Alabama and Oregon to become national champions.
“We know that bad things can happen if you don’t prepare right or you don’t bring it,” Wisconsin safety Joe Ferguson said. “It’s a lot of different players on each team, but you’ve still got to respect your opponent, respect what anyone in college football is capable of doing, and just go out there and play with a little bit of vengeance.”
“They’re a very dynamic team. Very dynamic offense,” Badgers linebacker Ryan Connelly said. “Their quarterback is one of the greatest to ever play at Ohio State, so it’s going to be a special challenge for us, but I think we’re willing to step up to it.”
Ohio State beat Wisconsin 30-23 last season , too, and was ultimately picked for the playoff despite a loss to Penn State that created a spot for the Nittany Lions in the 2016 title game, where they beat the Badgers.
Connelly was referring to J.T. Barrett, the senior with 142 total touchdowns for his career. He departed Ohio State’s 31-20 victory over Michigan on Saturday in the third quarter amid trouble with his right knee that stemmed from a pregame incident on the sideline. Barrett downplayed the injury, which he said he’s endured all season, and vowed to play against Wisconsin.
Coincidentally, Barrett’s brilliant freshman year in 2014 ended with a broken ankle in the Michigan game that kept him out the following week against Wisconsin. Cardale Jones took over at quarterback and led the Buckeyes the rest of the way. This time, the backup is redshirt freshman Dwayne Haskins, who had a solid debut in the second half Saturday against the Wolverines.
“He’s honestly very calm and cool,” Buckeyes center Billy Price said. “Don’t tell him this, but there’s a resemblance of Michael Vick. He’s a gifted, freak athlete, when you see what he’s able to do. Third-and-13, and he’s able to convert on it. As a 19, 20-year-old young man, that’s incredible.”
There’s a certain calmness and coolness the Badgers have exhibited all year, successfully maintaining focus on Big Ten play despite the national rankings that have had them on the outside of the playoff picture each week.
“Anytime you go a season without losing you’re kind of proving that you can bring it every week,” Ferguson said. “As far as proving ourselves to everyone else, I don’t think we worry about that so much. I think we’re going to approach it the same way we have all year and just go out and try to score one more point than the team against us, and that’s what we’re trying to do against Ohio State. We don’t need to change our formula.”
With the ACC (Miami-Clemson) and SEC (Georgia-Auburn) championship games a near certainty to produce two of the four finalists, the Badgers do not appear to have a path to the CFP as a one-loss team if they’re beaten by the Buckeyes.
Alabama would be looming with only one loss; the Tide don’t play next weekend. Oklahoma will be a lock with a win over TCU in the Big 12 championship game, and a two-loss Sooners team could top the Badgers with strength of victories in that scenario. So could the ACC and SEC losers.
Ohio State would have a conference title to minimize its two losses and, of course, a vital head-to-head win against Wisconsin, though it lost to Oklahoma in Columbus.
So the Badgers simply must prove they belong in this national championship chase with one more win, no matter how they put it together.
“Just because we have 12-0 doesn’t mean we’re a lock for anything right now,” Connelly said. “We still have to win the next game and win the game after that to get to our ultimate goal.”
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