Wisconsin went into fall camp as one of the top candidates for a bounce-back year after the mess that was the 2020 college football season. The Badgers struggled mightily out of the gate with a front-loaded schedule through the first month, and they began 1-3 with losses to Penn State, Notre Dame and Michigan.

It looked to be a lost season by the first week of October, and Wisconsin needed to be perfect the rest of the way to get back into a position to win the B1G West for the 5th time in 8 years. The Badgers won 7 consecutive games heading into Saturday’s road matchup against Minnesota, and the Badgers were far from perfect in a 23-13 loss in the regular season finale, costing themselves a division title and a spot in the conference championship game.

There is no underselling how crushing of a loss this was for the Wisconsin football program. For a brief moment on Saturday, the Badgers appeared to have a real shot at doing something they haven’t done since 2012 – and that’s to win the B1G championship.

Wisconsin crawled its way back into retaining its spot as the favorite to win the West down the stretch by starting 5-0 against divisional opponents. Still, after an 0-2 start in conference play, the Badgers knew they couldn’t do this by themselves. They needed help.

What makes Saturday’s loss so frustrating is Wisconsin received all the help it could’ve wanted from other teams in the West and still failed in its mission. Purdue lost to Minnesota. Iowa lost to Purdue. Minnesota lost to Illinois. The Badgers had every opportunity to win the division and couldn’t finish the job.

The Braelon Allen-led rushing attack was ineffective for the first time since he took on a much larger workload in the Wisconsin offense. He finished with just 47 yards on 17 carries for 2.8 yards per attempt and was held out of the end zone.

The only success the Badgers had in moving the ball down the field came in the passing game, but it’s hard to be impressed with that part of the offense overall. Graham Mertz completed 21 of 38 passes for 171 yards with no touchdowns and an interception.

For the second consecutive week, Wisconsin’s defense struggled to get stops consistently when the Badgers needed one. The last 2 games resulted in the most points Wisconsin allowed since the loss to Michigan.

Minutes before the opening kickoff, the Badgers seemed to have another golden opportunity. Jim Harbaugh finally did something many thought would never happen — he led the Wolverines to a win over Ohio State to win the B1G East.

Wisconsin’s defense ranks among the best in the country, and the offense improved significantly with the emergence of Allen and the gradual progression of Mertz and the passing game. The Badgers are a much better team in all areas than the team that lost to Michigan in the fourth game of the season.

Wisconsin has had its troubles against the Buckeyes, and their speed and athleticism especially at offensive skill positions has been a mismatch for the Badgers. There’s no doubt Wisconsin would’ve had a much better shot at a win over Michigan than it would against Ohio State, but we’ll never know because the Badgers were unable to take advantage of yet another break.

Wisconsin is a top-15 caliber program that consistently punches above its weight class as one of the most stable programs in the country. The Badgers never find themselves in situations we’ve seen happen to some of the sport’s elite brands like USC, Florida, LSU and Texas this season. But at a certain point, it would be great to see this program accomplish bigger and better things. A national championship is unrealistic, but when everything aligns for what could be a special season, Wisconsin needs to take advantage of those rare moments.

Wisconsin had a golden opportunity to completely put a 1-3 start in the rearview mirror, win the West, win the B1G and win the Rose Bowl. All of those possibilities were not out of the question on Saturday afternoon. Instead, the Badgers will learn their bowl game opponent next week still wondering what could’ve been.