In the offseason, Wisconsin Coach Barry Alvarez gathered his seniors together for a stark reminder of their status in Madison. Should they fail to win a Big Ten championship, Alvarez reminded them, they would become the first class in his 15-year tenure with the Badgers to leave without a ring.
Alvarez liked how his group responded, though he could hardly have envisioned this. The Badgers have aggressively pursued not only the Big Ten title, but a spot in the national race by winning their first seven games, something that has happened just twice since 1912 at Wisconsin.
"I saw something in the spring, and in two-a-days," Alvarez said yesterday. "There's great spirit on this team, great chemistry. They get after each other. They're just hungry."
The first Bowl Championship Series rankings of the season come out today, and it would make sense that Wisconsin's players -- fresh off a dramatic 20-17 victory over Purdue that pushed them to sixth in the latest Associated Press poll -- would be running to the Internet, eager to see where they rank.
That, though, won't be the case, according to senior cornerback Scott Starks, who turned around the Purdue game by scooping up a Kyle Orton fumble and scooting 40 yards for a touchdown that turned a 17-14 deficit into a 20-17 lead.
Starks said Alvarez not only spoke about the seniors' lack of a championship, but said the coach has put forth a typically cliched saying to which the players have taken. The idea: Go 1-0 every week. Don't worry about the Big Ten, the rankings, the BCS. Just go 1-0.
"A lot of those little sayings and slogans don't mean anything to players," Starks said. "But this one, it seems like everyone has bought into. We take it into every game, every practice, every play. . . . It just makes so much sense. If you win every play, you're going to win every game. It keeps you focused."
It is Wisconsin's defense, as stout a unit as there is in the nation, which has shown that focus throughout. The Badgers held Orton, a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender, to 235 yards passing, his lowest total of the year. The Badgers rank first in the nation in scoring defense (8.0 points per game) and second in total defense (222.4 yards per game), trailing only North Carolina State.
They have done it with a veteran secondary, led by Starks, and a talented and tenacious front four, led by end Erasmus James, who leaves his coaches and teammates in awe with alarming regularity. James injured an ankle in the third quarter Saturday, which will keep him out of next week's game against Northwestern. Still, he has such tremendous ability that Starks said he told him: "There's nobody who can stop you. You're going to cause a fumble." On the next series, James hit Orton, causing a fumble.
James -- who has 10.5 tackles for a loss, 7 sacks, 6 quarterback hurries, 2 forced fumbles and a fumble recovery -- didn't even play a year ago after suffering a hip injury that doctors feared might be career-threatening. He used the time off to put on more than 20 pounds, and when he was cleared to play over the summer, he was a 6-foot-4, 263-pound "game-changer," Starks said. "He's a beast."
James and the other defensive linemen -- opposite end Jonathan Welsh and tackles Anttaj Hawthorne and Jason Jefferson -- are seniors, and have been such a force that the Badgers rarely have to blitz to put pressure on the quarterback. The scheme is coordinated by Bret Bielema, hired after two seasons as co-defensive coordinator at Kansas State.
Now, whether the Badgers are paying attention or not, they will be a factor in the BCS, which today tests out its retooled formula -- one-third AP writers' poll, one-third ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll, one-third an average of computer polls. Because there is no longer a penalty for losses, it's possible that a team with a loss, such as fifth-ranked Florida State, could finish ahead of the Badgers and compete for a national title, even if Wisconsin finishes undefeated.
Not a line of thinking that has even come up in Madison.
"I'm not going to worry about the BCS, where we are in the league, if we win this, if we win that," Alvarez said, "We've got four games left. If we go 1-0 every time, we'll be fine."
Irish in Top 25
Look who has sneaked back into the top 25 for the first time since Sept. 7, 2003: Notre Dame. After the Fighting Irish beat Navy on Saturday, they were talking BCS themselves -- despite the fact that they have games at Tennessee and Southern California remaining. Next up, though, is Boston College, which has beaten the Irish two straight times. "You got your USCs, you got your Michigans," linebacker Mike Goolsby said. "But I mean, Boston College just seems to have more of a personal feel to it." More animosity? "If you want to put it that way, yeah," Goolsby said. . . . Nineteenth-ranked Boise State nearly squandered its dim BCS hopes in a come-from-behind, 45-42 win over Tulsa. But the biggest outside threat to the BCS remains ninth-ranked Utah, which faces only one team -- Wyoming (4-2) -- with a winning record the rest of the way. The Utes (6-0) thumped North Carolina, 46-16, late Saturday.