Monday, December 3, 2012

The Worst Team Ever to Play in the Rose Bowl?

Noted idiot Craig James infamously labeled Wisconsin's 1998-99 squad "the worst team ever to play in the Rose Bowl." The common charge was that the Badgers were actually the third-best team in the Big Ten—behind co-champs Ohio State and Michigan—and got to play in the Rose Bowl only because of an obscure, stupid tie-breaking rule. Wisconsin and OSU did not play that year, and Wisconsin was awarded the Rose Bowl because Michigan and OSU had been to the Rose Bowl more recently.

Wisconsin was a 10-point underdog against UCLA in that 1999 Rose Bowl Game (which Mr. Chorlton and I attended). UCLA had gone a perfect 8-0 in the Pac-10 and was headed to the BCS national championship game until a season-ending, non-conference 49-45 loss to a weak Miami team (which itself was coming off a 66-13 loss to a mediocre, Donovan McNab led Syracuse squad). UCLA was led at QB by future Chicago Bears failure Cade McNown, and it could score. But it could not defend. It was soft, like a marshmallow.

Enter Ron Dayne. He absolutely destroyed the UCLA defense, running for ridiculously easy touchdowns of 7, 10, 22, and 54 yards. Jamar Fletcher made the play of the game, picking off an awful McNown throw and returning it 46 yards for a touchdown.

Alluding to Craig James's comment, after the game Barry Alvarez quipped, "Well, I know we're at least the second worst" team ever to play in the Rose Bowl.

In hindsight, the hyperbole about the Badgers being a bad team that year looks silly. They had a number of great players, including notably Dayne and Fletcher. Other than a close win on the road against Indiana, the Badgers handily destroyed all the bad teams they played. They had two nice wins against Purdue (led by Drew Brees, who went 55 for 83—both NCAA records) and Penn State. Their only loss was on the road to Michigan, which went on to clobber Arkansas in the Citrus Bowl. Ohio State won the Sugar Bowl handily. The Big Ten was actually good that year. And the Badgers went back and won Rose Bowl again the next year, negating conclusively any notion that the 1998 team was a fluke.

The 1998 team is relevant because the Badgers are against going to the Rose Bowl under a cloud of controversy. They got to the Big Ten Championship game with four conference losses, on what might be reasonably considered a technicality. It appears that they got the best possible draw in Nebraska, which has a terrible run defense. A few weeks ago I said here, after the OT loss to Michigan State and the news of Stave's season-ending injury:
It's still likely that the Badgers will stumble their way to the Championship game. But their odds of winning it went way down. And, if they do, they may actually be the worst team ever to play in the Rose Bowl this time.
By one objective measure, the Badgers clearly are the worst team ever to play in the Rose Bowl: they have five losses, more than any other team ever to play in the game. I haven't researched it, but I wouldn't be surprised if there's never been a four-loss team in the Rose Bowl. [Update: three teams have played in the Rose Bowl with four losses: Washington (6-4) in 1964 (lost to Illinois); Washington (7-4) in 1978 (beat Michigan); and UCLA (6-4-1) in 1984 (beat Illinois). So the three worst teams to play in the Rose Bowl are actually 2-1 in the game.]

That said, a strong case can be made that this is the best five-loss team ever. Three of the five losses were in overtime, and the other two were by three points. Two of the overtime losses came in what were essentially exhibition games after Wisconsin had already clinched a spot in the Big Ten Championship game. Wisconsin had nothing to play for in those games, particularly not in the final game when they could no longer claim the meaningless divisional "championship." In the brutal, physical game of football, the slightest lack of commitment is nearly impossible to overcome. So in my book those losses carry an asterisk.

We know now that the Badgers were keeping some tricks up their sleeves. They were clearly saving Melvin Gordon for when he was really needed. They were resting Chris Borland, who is probably the best player on the team. With something big to play for, against a quality opponent, with everything on the line, the Badgers brought the house and won by forty points. 40.

Early lines have the Badgers as 6.5 point underdogs against Stanford. Stanford is a very good team that plays Big Ten football. They have the best run defense in the nation, and they shut down the high-flying Oregon Ducks.

But Stanford's resume is not overwhelming. They have two losses, one of which was in overtime to No. 1 Notre Dame. But the other loss was to Washington which has lost, ahem, five times this year. And two of their wins were in overtime (against Oregon (impressive) and Arizona (not so much)). They also had their Northern Iowa moment in the season opener, when they beat San Jose State by just a field goal. (San Jose State is decent, it turns out, but they lost to Utah State by 22.)

All told, Stanford is an impressive team, and they will probably beat the Badgers. But I will be surprised if it's by more than six points. And I won't be at all surprised if the Badgers again prove themselves to be at least the second-worst team ever to play in the Rose Bowl.


  1. It's looking more and more likely that Alvarez may come out of retirement to coach this game. The fact he has not named an interim coach or denied that he will do so only leads to the conclusion that he will.
    Wouldn't it be temping to go for a 4th Rose Bowl win, add to the history books, and get enough of a taste to decide if he really wants to come back to be a full time head coach?
    My guess is he won't come back full time, but a coach can't be found in a month so why not coach one game?

  2. Alvarez will coach the Rose Bowl confirmed-