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CBSSports.com Senior College Football Columnist

In Nebraska's debut, Wilson-led Wisconsin shows it's Big Ten's best

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MADISON, Wis. -- Turns out commissioner Jim Delany's decision to add a 12th team and more inventory (his term) to his tradition-bound conference was the Big Ten's second-biggest get this season.

Forget conference newcomer of the year for Wisconsin's Russell Wilson. Who knows if the Badgers' rent-a-player is even eligible. Go right to the stratosphere -- Heisman talk, another Rose Bowl, a national championship. All those things are in play now that a grad student from Richmond, Va., decided to move from North Carolina State to Wisconsin to play his final season of college football.

"We're sexy," Badgers coach Bret Bielema said after his team overwhelmed Nebraska 48-17.

All these years and those scores of Wisconsin game-managers, underachievers and not-quite-good enoughs and Wisconsin finally has its difference-making quarterback. And Wilson is only making a cameo.

While he's here, Wilson might as well bring sexy back to a program that never had that label. He threw for two touchdowns and ran for another one, keeping the Huskers on their perpetual comeback tour (no conference title since '99) and giving the Badgers endless possibilities.

"I still believe we're Wisconsin," Bielema said, "[But] what we are is extremely good right now."

Wilson has been here a few months. He'll be here a few more. After a pounding of the Huskers, though, it seems that he will leave a legacy that lasts much longer than his actual time on the field.

The crowd sensed it, reveling in taking out Nebraska in the Huskers' first Big Ten game. The players sensed it, trailing for the first time all season. Wisconsin then outscored the Huskers 41-3 the rest of the way. Even the Wisconsin godfather, AD Barry Alvarez, sensed it giving Bielema a big bear hug after the game.

"I'm so f------ proud of you," said Alvarez, a former Nebraska linebacker who brought Bob Devaney's defense-minded, run-based ethic here.

"He had this planned 20 years ago," Bielema said.

That's when Alvarez arrived as head coach. While he took Wisconsin to three Rose Bowls, Bielema got to his first last year as a head coach. There seems to be a lot more on the horizon.

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Bielema has built a sturdier and, yes, sexier foundation. It's hard to believe that Wilson threw only 20 times on Saturday. What was more impressive is that he kept enough plays alive and made so many accurate throws that offensive coordinator Paul Chryst must feel like he can draw it up in the dirt and it will work.

"The kid is truly, truly a trooper," teammate Aaron Henry. "I know there's been Heisman talk. I really haven't heard Heisman talk here in my previous years ...

"I want to call him Mike Vick. He may not be as fast as Mike Vick, but he doesn't take as many blows as Mike Vick."

If none of the dreams produced from Saturday night come true for Wisconsin, they at least seem possible now. Ohio State has lost twice, looked putrid doing it, and still has to face the NCAA firing squad. Michigan is in the other division and Wisconsin doesn't have to play itself. The seat of Big Ten power resides right here in Madison.

One of the most efficient quarterbacks in the country is also one of the most electric. Wilson brought Wisconsin back with the naked bootleg which is becoming his signature move.

He can run or pass off it. Wilson did both Saturday throwing for 255 yards and running for 32 more in his first meaningful game since leaving the ACC. It's enough, even now, to make folks forget Scott Tolzien. And all Scotty T did was complete 73 percent of his passes and lead Wisconsin to the Rose Bowl.

Tailback Montee Ball ran for 151 yards and scored four touchdowns. But media were willing to wait and nudge up against deadline to wait for Wilson, one of the last players out of the locker room.

He's here at least for a little while longer, which should continue to be of considerable embarrassment to North Carolina State coach Tom O'Brien.

O'Brien is old-school military. Maybe he couldn't stand Wilson playing minor-league baseball in the offseason. Maybe he wanted to move on to the promise of redshirt junior Mike Glennon, instead of Wilson, who had only one year of eligibility left.

Still, you'd take your chances with a guy who was away from football for 250 days in 2010 and still led the ACC in passing. Wilson said he wanted to stay at NC State, but didn't want to give up playing baseball.

Turns out, the Colorado Rockies may have drafted a better quarterback than the Broncos currently have on their roster.

Bielema was asked what he thought of having the ultimate rent-a-player.

"Hallelujah," he said. "I'm very happy with it."

"If there is a better player in college football I'd like to see it. On the big stage, he thrives on it."

Nebraska did its part by once again not being ready for prime time. Quarterback Taylor Martinez threw interceptions when it seemed like he was able to gouge Wisconsin with some runs. About that time Martinez was called upon to pass on eight consecutive plays late the first half. He threw interceptions on two of them.

That was only part of the problem for a program that had its defense healthy for one of the few times this season. It wasn't the worst loss of the Bo Pelini era but it was the most points given up by Nebraska since Oklahoma scored 65 in 2008.

"I'm embarrassed by how we played defensively," coach Bo Pelini said. "I apologize to the fans of Nebraska, because that was a joke."

At least the Husker fans showed up, arriving early and drinking often with their new Big Ten friends. Years from now they'll talk about the first top-10 matchup here since 1962. They'll recount in amazement about how thousands of Nebraska fans pried tickets loose from rabid Badger fans.

Then they'll remember how Wilson didn't ruin the moment, but he sure as hell stole it.

Saturday's performance defined Wilson and should define Wisconsin's season. It's going to be good, maybe championship good. That's not to say Wilson and Wisconsin weren't suspect in their first four games, but their competition certainly was (UNLV, Oregon State, Northern Illinois, South Dakota).

But now we know where all this is headed. Big Ten newcomer of the year? That's a good place to start in Wilson's one and only year. All this has happened in such a flash that Wilson may not going to be in town long enough to pick it up.

Might as well go right to the stratosphere and consider him the best player in the country until further notice.


Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.
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