PASADENA, Calif. — When the TCU Horned Frogs stepped off the team bus and got their first look at the Rose Bowl's impeccably manicured grass, any lingering thoughts of disrespect and disappointment evaporated.
No. 3 TCU might be the third wheel in the BCS title dance, but the unbeaten Frogs know they're still making football history in today's meeting with Wisconsin.
Although the Mountain West champions just might be the most unlikely school to appear in the Granddaddy of Them All since Washington & Jefferson played a scoreless tie with California in the 1922 game, nobody doubts these Frogs (12-0) deserve to stand in Arroyo Seco on the same beautiful field with the fourth-ranked Badgers (11-1) in the 97th Rose Bowl.
"Most players in this sport will go their whole lives and never know what it's like to play in that stadium for the chance to be Rose Bowl champions," TCU coach Gary Patterson said. "We've got a great opportunity."
The Horned Frogs have soaked up the excitement of bowl week in Los Angeles, but never lost sight of a victory that would cement their program's place among the nation's elite. After last season's loss to Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl, TCU responded with another perfect regular season, but couldn't get past fellow undefeated teams Oregon and Auburn in the overall rankings.
"We're not just representing ourselves," said TCU quarterback Andy Dalton, who will cap his college career by going for his 42nd victory in 49 starts. "We're representing all non-automatic qualifying schools. We're here to show we can all play at this level. We know they're going to be watching us and supporting us."
Although the first back-to-back BCS busters are a slight favorite on paper against the Big Ten co-champion Badgers, the Frogs realize they'll look like Davids against Wisconsin's Goliath-sized offensive line, maybe the nation's best. The Badgers are in their first Rose Bowl in 11 years, wielding a powerful rushing offense against a TCU defense that was the nation's best in several important statistical categories.
"We're representing not only the Big Ten, but every qualifying conference," said Gabe Carimi, Wisconsin's Outland Trophy-winning left tackle. "There's no getting around that, and we accept it. You can't shy away from it."
Although the Rose Bowl crowd is likely to be dominated by red-clad Wisconsin snowbirds and supporters, the matchup seems relatively even on the field — particularly on the season scoreboard, where Wisconsin and TCU both scored exactly 520 points.
TCU has racked up 491.5 yards per game to Wisconsin's 450.2, but the Badgers mercilessly have run up the score on several opponents in recent weeks. The Frogs' defense held seven opponents to a touchdown or less, while the Badgers forced 14 more turnovers than they made.
"I do believe we're the underdog, at least in some people's eyes, and we should be," said Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema, who's attempting to join former boss Barry Alvarez as the only Badgers coaches to win the Rose Bowl. "They're an undefeated football team. They've done something we haven't.
"I can't really respond to what TCU's motivation is, but I know this: Our kids really believe that this is a culmination to something special. There is a difference in that ring if it says Rose Bowl champions or just says a Rose Bowl that you played in. So that's a big deal for our guys."
TCU also sees the game as a do-over of sorts, a chance to make up for last season's 17-10 loss to Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl. Patterson adjusted his team's workout schedules and free-time allotments — and he also made sure to take the players to the Rose Bowl shortly after they arrived in town, hoping to minimize the "Ooooh" factor on game day.
It's tempting to distill the matchup into a clash of Wisconsin's size and strength against TCU's speed and tactics, but both teams have spent the week downplaying that.
Wisconsin's Scott Tolzien has completed nearly 75 percent of his passes in its sneakily effective passing game, while TCU's 4-2-5 defense and flexible offense sometimes mask its strong fundamentals and pure athleticism.
"They'll give you a ton of formations, but only run a handful of plays out of those," Wisconsin defensive back Aaron Henry said. "They do have some guys that can fly, though. One to five, this is probably going to be the fastest receiving corps we've faced all year."
Both coaches have been careful to keep history in mind throughout their week in southern California. While Patterson says he doesn't need to remind his team about the stakes, Bielema was brought to tears at Friday's final news conference when he spoke about the importance of the game to Wisconsin football tradition.
Bielema and Patterson already have thought about what they'll say to their players before taking the field.
"In our own minds, we're playing for the national title," Patterson said. "Because if you win the Rose Bowl and nobody else beat you all year, that's something special."
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New Year's Day games
TicketCity Bowl at Dallas
Northwestern (7-5) vs. Texas Tech (7-5), 10 a.m. (ESPNU)
Capital One Bowl at Orlando, Fla.
Michigan State (11-1) vs. Alabama (9-3), 11 a.m. (ESPN)
Outback Bowl at Tampa, Fla.
Florida (7-5) vs. Penn State (7-5), 11 a.m. (ABC)
Gator Bowl at Jacksonville, Fla.
Michigan (7-5) vs. Mississippi State (8-4), 11:30 a.m. (ESPN2)
Rose Bowl at Pasadena, Calif.
TCU (12-0) vs. Wisconsin (11-1), 3 p.m. (ESPN)
Fiesta Bowl at Glendale, Ariz.
Connecticut (8-4) vs. Oklahoma (11-2), 6:30 p.m. (ESPN)