Alvarez's ties to Nebraska played a small role in bringing the Huskers to the Big Ten—and may have triggered the first tremor of conference realignment. A few hours after the Rose Bowl in January 2010, Alvarez had dinner at a Pasadena hotel with Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, who peppered Alvarez with questions about the Huskers: Do they do things the right way? Do you think they would fit in the Big Ten? A day later Osborne called Alvarez at his Madison home, asking about the rumor that Delany was interested in adding Nebraska. Alvarez said it was true, then passed along Delany's phone number to Osborne, starting the Huskers' journey to the Big Ten. "I love Nebraska," says Alvarez. "It's the start of a new era for the Big Ten."
Laser pointer in one hand, Paul Chyrst punches a key on the computer in his cramped office, and suddenly Wisconsin's first offensive play of the 2011 season, against UNLV, is rolling on the video screen in front of his desk. "This is an off-tackle power running play," says Chyrst, the Badgers' offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. "It's a good example of everyone working together."
On first-and-10 from Wisconsin's 35-yard line, quarterback Russell Wilson hands the ball to running back Montee Ball. As Zeitler and Oglesby—the right guard and right tackle, respectively—seal their side of the line, Konz pushes his defender to his left. Wagner pulls from his left tackle spot and runs through the hole between Konz and Zeitler. As Wagner "mauls" (Chyrst's word) a linebacker, Ball follows closely, gaining 11 yards. It was only one play, but the O-linemen say that when they lifted themselves off the ground, they saw dazed looks on the faces of the Rebels defenders, who realized that the Badgers' front five hit with an impossible-to-prepare-for force. These are the small moments that the Uglies find beautiful. Wisconsin won 51--17.
"I expect the O-line to get me through to the secondary," says Ball, a 210-pound junior who is averaging 5.7 yards on 63 carries this season. "The O-line is the reason I came here. It's a running back's dream."
Another player who came to Madison largely because of the line was Wilson, a transfer from N.C. State who was the runner-up for ACC Offensive Player of the Year in 2010. When he visited the Madison campus early this summer, he was given a tour of the weight room, where several of the linemen were working out. Gazing at the Paul Bunyan--like figures grunting and yelling as they lifted weights, Wilson went bug-eyed. "Never seen anything like that before in my life," says Wilson, who at the time was also considering Auburn. "I couldn't believe how much weight they were pushing. That pretty much made up my mind."
Then Wilson met the linemen, one by one.
• Wagner, a 6'6", 320-pound junior, is a former walk-on tight end from West Allis. He's gained 70 pounds since arriving on campus in 2008 and is the most athletic of the group. "Everyone on this line was a Wisconsin fan growing up," he says. "We have so much in common. That helps our chemistry."
• Frederick, a 6'4", 330-pound sophomore, is from Sharon and is known as the intellect of the Big Uglies. He's one of only 100 students at Wisconsin (which has an enrollment of 42,099) with a double major in engineering mechanics and computer science. "Football has just been a vehicle for me to get an education," says Frederick, who is the strongest player on the roster—he recently squatted 750 pounds, only 30 shy of the school record—and may be the most ferocious one-on-one run blocker in the Big Ten.
• Konz, who is from Neenah, is the rare snapper who can pull and flatten a safety 20 yards down the field. "None of us wanted to play in a spread offense," he says. "We like to hit people and move them out of the way."
• Zeitler, a 6'4", 315-pound senior, is from Waukesha. He's regarded as the hardest worker of the group, a self-made player who rarely makes a mental mistake. "I've been a hermit for the last three years because football is like another major, given how much time we've spent in the film room," he says.