Wisconsin's Rose Bowl dreams finally blossomed this season but the seeds were planted a year ago, during a disappointing 10-3 (5-3 Big Ten) season.
Back-to-back losses against Ohio State and Iowa and a late-season upset at Northwestern doomed Wisconsin to yet another trip to the Champs Sports Bowl in Orlando.
Wisconsin blew a big lead against the Buckeyes before falling, 31-13 and again gave up a second half lead over the then-unbeaten Hawkeyes. Against Northwestern, Wisconsin again let the game slip away down the stretch.
"We weren't able to close out a couple games the way we needed to and the scars of last year, I think, propelled us to this year," Bielema said Sunday, after the Badgers were officially invited to their first Rose Bowl since the 1999 season.
The turnaround actually started at the end of last season, in the Capital One Bowl against No. 14 Miami. Wisconsin fell behind, 7-0, early to the Hurricanes, but rattled off 20 unanswered points to pull off the upset victory.
In the locker room after that game, Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema had a message for his outgoing seniors.
"(I told them) you weren't part of a championship season, but you laid the foundation for where we are to move forward," Bielema said. "I really felt last year, we were on the verge of being a championship level team."
Wisconsin rolled through its non-conference slate, though needed a blocked extra point to beat Arizona State at home. After dropping the conference opener at Michigan State, Bielema saw a sense of dedication and resolve in his players, who followed the loss with back-to-back wins against then-No. 1 Ohio State and at Iowa -- a first for the program.
"I was very confident the team would respond in the right way," Bielema said. "To win the back-to-back games, I knew we had something special. I really felt going into the bye that this was a team that wasn't going to be denied."
The Badgers finished the season on a seven-game winning streak which included three blowout victories (by 63 points vs. Indiana; by 20 at Michigan and by 47 in the season finale against Northwestern) and clinched a share of the Big Ten title, along with Michigan State and Ohio State.
Wisconsin earned the trip to Pasadena by virtue of having the highest BCS ranking of the three teams. Michigan State held the head-to-head tie-breaker over Wisconsin, which held the tie-breaker over Ohio State, but since the Spartans and Buckeyes didn't play this season, the Rose Bowl invite went to Wisconsin, which finished .0381 ahead of Ohio State and is headed to the Sugar Bowl.
Michigan State finished ninth and will play Alabama in the Gator Bowl.
The Badgers will be facing a hungry opponent in Texas Christian University, which went 12-0 this season -- its final as a member of the Mountain West Conference.
The Horned Frogs finished third in the final BCS poll, behind fellow unbeatens Auburn and Oregon. Because of a quirk in the BCS rules this year, the Rose Bowl was required to take TCU, the highest-ranked non-automatic qualifier, instead of 11-1 Stanford, which finished between TCU and Wisconsin in the poll.
Technicality or not, TCU head coach Gary Patterson is elated to bring his team to its first-ever Rose Bowl.
"We've all strive to play for the national championship," Patterson said. "But we feel like we're playing a team that's worthy of a national championship in Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl.
"There's no disappointment here. Our kids are way excited. They're all in force tonight over at our gymnasium. And we're just excited to get going."