PASADENA, Calif. — For the second straight year, TCU is unbeaten, untied – and unable to play for the national championship.
At least the Horned Frogs are getting the granddaddy of all consolation prizes.
No. 3 TCU (12-0) is headed to its first Rose Bowl for a showdown with fourth-ranked Wisconsin (11-1), both schools learned Sunday night while celebrating remarkable seasons.
TCU is busting the BCS for the second straight season, following last year's loss to Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl. The Frogs held out hope of a title shot until Saturday, but higher-profile unbeatens Auburn and Oregon won their final regular-season games to stay in front.
Yet nobody at Daniel Meyer Coliseum in Fort Worth seemed even slightly bummed while the Frogs' band, cheerleaders and about 2,500 fans heralded the first team from outside the power conferences to reach back-to-back BCS bowls.
"It would have been fun to see what would have happened if one of the teams went down, but that's not how it happened," said TCU quarterback Andy Dalton, a 41-game winner as a starter. "There's two great teams playing in the national championship game. ... We'll go out and prove how we play, and hopefully people will see that."
Big Ten co-champion Wisconsin is headed back to Pasadena for the first time since the 1999 season, when Heisman Trophy-winning tailback Ron Dayne led the Badgers past Stanford on Jan. 1, 2000. Wisconsin held off fellow one-loss co-champions Ohio State and Michigan State in the BCS standings, and its powerful offense is sure to be the stiffest challenge faced by TCU's NCAA-leading defense.
"I haven't seen much film (of TCU) at this point, because I didn't want to jinx ourselves," Badgers coach Bret Bielema said. "I didn't want to believe in anything until it was real. ... We've put ourselves in a good opportunity to play in this game, and I know we'll represent the conference well."
The Frogs have embraced their destiny since wrapping up a perfect regular season in Albuquerque with a 66-17 thrashing of New Mexico last week. The school handed out red long-stemmed roses on the sideline while formalizing the Frogs' second straight Mountain West Conference title.
"Knowing I'm going to get a chance to stand on that field is truly an honor," TCU coach Gary Patterson said.
TCU is in the midst of an incredible renaissance under Patterson, with 25 consecutive regular-season wins and 38 of 41 overall. The only losses in that span were to Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl, at Oklahoma and at Utah.
Yet TCU is well aware of the heartbreak faced by teams outside the six BCS conferences. That's just one reason the Frogs have decided to join the system instead of fighting it by accepting admission in 2012 to the Big East, which is sending 8-4 Connecticut to the Fiesta Bowl.
TCU even faced the possibility of missing out on the BCS games entirely, but Boise State's overtime loss late last month to Nevada cleared the Frogs' path to Pasadena.
For the fifth time in 10 years, the Rose Bowl won't feature a Big Ten team against a Pac-10 team. That hallowed intersectional tradition was tossed with the advent of the BCS, although the Rose Bowl still strives to match up teams from its favored conferences.
Many fans from Madison to California hoped Stanford could slide in to keep alive that intersectional vibe, but TCU got the bid under a new rule requiring the Rose Bowl to pick an eligible team from a league without an automatic BCS spot once every four years if a Pac-10 or Big Ten team is in the national title game.
With Oregon headed to Glendale, Ariz., for its title shot, the Horned Frogs eagerly stepped in front of the Cardinal. TCU and Wisconsin have met just once before, playing to a 14-14 tie in 1970.
"We figured that Oregon and Auburn would get the job done, and we were totally satisfied with going to the Rose Bowl," Frogs linebacker Tank Carder said. "Last year when they told us when we were playing Boise, we had already played them the year before that. It was still a BCS game, but this year we're going to play Wisconsin. It's a big-name school. They've got a big O-line. It's going to be a dogfight."
Points could be plentiful in a matchup of two offenses averaging 43.3 points apiece this season. Although the Badgers lost to Michigan State on Oct. 2, they've won seven straight since, embarrassing most of their opponents while winning by an average of 26.1 points.
Wisconsin is winning much the same way it did in its last march to Pasadena 11 years ago, when the workhorse Dayne ran behind a huge offensive line. The carries are now spread among tailbacks Montee Ball, John Clay and freshman James White, who have combined for 2,829 yards and 44 touchdowns.
Dalton will wrap up his remarkable career at the Rose Bowl after passing for 2,638 yards and 26 touchdowns with just six interceptions while completing more than 66 percent of his throws. TCU also has a 1,000-yard rusher in Ed Wesley, while the Frogs' defense has allowed just 137 points and an NCAA-low 215.4 yards per game.
TCU accepted its historic trip to Pasadena on an already momentous day for the program: The west side of Amon G. Carter Stadium was imploded into a pile of rubble Sunday morning to clear the way for the start of a $105 million renovation.
AP Sports Writer Stephen Hawkins in Fort Worth, Texas, contributed to this report.