INDIANAPOLIS — The most significant goals are still in front of the University of Wisconsin football team.
A trip to the Rose Bowl. A third straight Big Ten Conference title.
All the Badgers (7-5) have to do is beat No. 14 Nebraska (10-2) in the Big Ten title game Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium and this season will be deemed a success.
"Coach B just gave us a speech this week," senior strong safety Shelton Johnson, one of UW's co-captains, said of coach Bret Bielema.
"' You either leave Big Ten champs or you don't.' All of our goals are still out there; the Rose Bowl is still out there for us. This is it for us. We have to produce."
The flip side is out there as well.
A loss to Nebraska and the Badgers would almost certainly wind up in the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla., on Jan. 1. UW would fall to 7-6, and would need a bowl win over an SEC team to avoid finishing with the worst record in Bielema's seven seasons. The 2008 team went 7-6.
Seldom does the outcome of one game have such a make-or-break quality for an entire season.
If the Badgers win, the season immediately becomes the biggest accomplishment of the Bielema era and jumps to the top line of his resume: The first team in school history to win three straight Big Ten titles.
Lose and Bielema faces an offseason filled with recriminations and second-guessing.
It's a fitting ending to a bizarre Big Ten season in which Ohio State and Penn State — the top two finishers in the Leaders Division, ahead of UW — were ineligible for the postseason due to NCAA sanctions.
The Badgers had a chance to render that a mere footnote but couldn't get it done on the field, losing to Ohio State and Penn State in overtime. Those were two of three overtime losses suffered by UW, with its five total losses coming by a combined 19 points.
"That's the craziest thing. You have a season like this and there are so many close calls, so many letdowns," senior defensive end Brendan Kelly said. "You could let it go south and (think), 'The season just got away from us.' Then you look up and say, 'Wait a second, we're in the Big Ten championship and if we win this game we're going to the Rose Bowl.' No one look down. Please, don't dare. It is all in front of us.
"If you win this game, we could write history: 'This is a team that turned it around, they went through a lot.' But, hey, that's life. You're going to deal with a lot of things in life, just like football."
The Badgers have dealt with plenty of issues this season, some of their own making.
The first clue this wasn't going to be a normal year came when senior tailback Montee Ball suffered a concussion when he was assaulted on Aug. 1, just prior to the start of preseason camp.
UW has used three starting quarterbacks and Bielema made the drastic decision to switch offensive line coaches, firing the recently hired Mike Markuson after just the second game and replacing him with graduate assistant Bart Miller.
Injuries hit several key players, including No. 1 quarterback Joel Stave, left tackle Rick Wagner, wide receiver Jared Abbrederis and middle linebacker Chris Borland.
But the Badgers are as healthy as they have been in a month and should have their significant contributors available for this game, other than Stave (broken collarbone).
Meanwhile, public sentiment seems to have shifted blame away from the two ineligible teams to the Badgers for not deserving to be in tonight's title game. If the Badgers win this game, the scorn they received going into the 1999 Rose Bowl — CBS commentator Craig James called that team the worst one to ever play in the Rose Bowl — will pale in comparison.
"I appreciate the question and understand it totally," Bielema said, when asked about his team bearing the brunt of the blame. "I think there are 10 teams out there in the Big Ten that would love to be in the position Nebraska and us are in right now.
"When the two teams take the field, neither is going to care how the other team got there or what their record is. They're just going to be looking to compete for a Big Ten championship."
Bielema framed the challenge for his players at the start of the week by saying if they were 12-0 or 7-5, they would still have to win this game to win the Big Ten title.
"There are a lot of people in this world that worry about what you don't have," Bielema said. "We need to concentrate on what we do have — and what we do have is a group of young men that really are resilient.
"They're hard-working, they're very coachable and we have to maximize that world. It doesn't do us any good to worry about what we don't have. We have to really focus on what we do have."
The Badgers defeated Michigan State 42-39 in the inaugural title game a year ago and even though fan excitement seems dulled by this matchup, it hasn't affected the players. According to Borland, "There's no lull in the amount of excitement" compared to last year.
"We do come in with five losses and last year we had two. That's a big difference," he said. "We feel like we've been in every game, had a chance to win every game."
Kelly said winning this game won't totally eliminate this season's disappointment.
"It doesn't wipe it away because you're going to remember all of those games that were so close," he said. "But it gives you hope. It definitely gives our fans more hope.
"We know what we're capable of when we're firing on all cylinders. We know exactly what we can do and we love what we do when we do it."
It's far from unprecedented, a team with at least five losses playing for a conference title. A year ago, UCLA advanced to the inaugural Pac-12 title game at 6-6, despite finishing two games behind ineligible Southern California in the division and losing 50-0 in the regular-season finale to the Trojans.
At least this is expected to be a fairly even matchup, after Nebraska beat UW 30-27 on Sept. 29 in Lincoln, Neb. Colorado made it to the Big 12 title game with four-loss teams in 2004 and '05, losing 42-3 to Oklahoma and 70-3 to Texas.
Alabama won the national title last year without winning its division in the Southeastern Conference.
And don't forget the Super Bowl champion New York Giants, proving last season it's what happens at the end of a season that matters most.
"The New York Giants were 9-7 going into the playoffs," UW defensive line coach Charlie Partridge said. "Everyone knows they were Super Bowl champs and that's what you really remember."